Seismic changes to Waverley Borough Council’s planning service were approved in a split vote at an extraordinary council meeting last Wednesday, eliciting mixed reactions from various stakeholders.
The changes, prompted by threats from central government to designate Waverley’s planning functions for special measures, aim to address the council’s poor performance in determining applications on time.
However, they also strip elected ward councillors of decision-making powers and increase the authority of professional planning officers.
Waverley has struggled to meet the government’s target of determining 70 per cent of non-major planning applications within eight weeks over the past two years.
The council’s under-performance in this area places it among the worst-performing local authorities in the country.
In response to the looming threat of special measures, Waverley has decided to concentrate decision-making authority in the hands of planning officers, who will determine household planning applications as well as developments of ten homes or fewer.
Under the new system, a single planning committee comprising 15 members will be responsible for determining applications across the entire borough. Currently there are two geographically-based ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ committees. But prior to 2021 there were five, with the addition of ‘central’, ‘southern’ and ‘joint’ committees – the latter reserved for larger applications.
Ward councillors will no longer have voting rights on applications in their own wards, but they will be allowed to speak twice at committee meetings – before and after the debate.
The reduction in the number of planning committees has raised concerns about the increased workload on the 15 members nominated to make decisions and the potential need for extensive travel across the borough. However, the changes also aim to limit the number of site visits.
Waverley’s Conservative opposition group voted against the changes, viewing them as an erosion of local representation forced through by the Lib Dem/Labour/Green/Farnham Residents Party coalition.
Councillor Peter Martin, leader of Waverley’s Tory group, criticised the decision as “a move in the wrong direction”, emphasising the loss of local insight and context that ward councillors provide.
But the Lib Dems argue the new system will enhance local representation. In a letter printed in full on Page 18, Stewart Edge, of Farnham Liberal Democrats, said the changes enable councillors to represent constituents “more freely”.
He said: “If they are members of the committee itself, their comments must be consistent with the obligation on committee members not to appear ‘predetermined’ (an absolute planning ‘no-no’).”
Mr Edge, himself a former Waverley councillor, did though confirm the principle motivation for alterations was “because of the very real threat by the government to take away Waverley’s planning powers”.
The changes were instigated by Waverley’s Lib Dem leader Paul Follows, and put its Waverley coalition partner the Farnham Residents in a particularly awkward position.
One of the Residents group’s five key aims listed on its website is “to work together to bring about change to the system of governance through introducing true Localism by devolving decision making to the most local level”. The website also states its members are “free of any party whip”.
And yet 12 of the group’s 13 councillors voted in favour of stripping ward councillors of planning votes and centralising decision making on planning matters at last week’s extraordinary meeting. The one councillor who rebelled was Farnham Residents’ founder Jerry Hyman who claimed the changes were unconstitutional.
Waverley deputy leader and Farnham Residents councillor for Rowledge, Peter Clark, has defended his party in a column printed in full in this week's Herald, saying the council had to "act decisively" to avoid special measures.
The government's Planning Advisory Service was invited to review the planning service at the borough council, he said.
Cllr Clark added: "The results of their review, combined with the advice of our newly-appointed head of planning Claire Upton-Brown, were debated at an extraordinary council last week, and several positive reforms were agreed by an overwhelming majority.
"Whether it be the speed or quality of planning decisions, our planning department, and our committee structure each have a role to play if we are to move away from designation territory.
"Creating a single planning committee, comprising 15 locally-elected councillors, will deliver greater consistency over planning decisions across the borough and will improve communication between council officers and councillors on the planning committee."
He added four Farnham Residents members would sit on the single planning committee, as well as two Farnham councillors from other parties. In addition, the chair of the new single committee will be David Beaman, the joint leader of Farnham Town Council.