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Waverley Borough Council Committee System - Committee Document

Meeting of the Environment and Leisure Overview and Scrutiny Committee held on 23/11/2004
Members' Questionnaire



Annexe 5
ENVIRONMENT AND LEISURE OVERVIEW AND SCRUTINY COMMITTEE
REVIEW OF DEVELOPMENT CONTROL
MEMBERS’ QUESTIONNAIRE

1. Question

What do you consider to be the Members’ role in the planning process?

Answers

(a) To agree planning policy.

To represent local views and opinion on individual applications.
To provide background information which may not be apparent from the planning application.
To decide on applications which involve key questions of policy.
To advise officers on priorities.

(b) To share with officers, members’ local knowledge.
To assist officers with policy interpretation and judgement forming.
To add a democratic dimension to the process to allow citizens to see that ‘justice’ is done.

(c) To listen to and represent our Ward Members.
To be mindful and apply the planning code.
To take responsibility with other members for any departure from the code.
To partake in safeguarding the individual characteristics of the area.

(d) To reflect public opinion in the implementation of planning control.
To scrutinise officer decision in relation to delegated tasks and to consider officer recommendations in relation to non-delegated decisions.
To ensure consistency and fairness in planning control.

(e) Current planning rules and regulations seem to be set in favour of unprecedentedly widescale development. I therefore believe the role of members is to protect the beauty, amenity and prosperity of the Borough, particularly for the Ward individual Members represent. Members should represent the views of residents and reject unpopular development whenever discretion, subjectivity and flexibility allow. Members must set and implement reasonably challenging targets for affordable housing but not at the detriment of current residents.

(f) To be involved in making decisions on more complex and controversial schemes.
To make decisions openly and impartially with sound judgement and justifiable reasons.
To look at the officers decisions, the information given in the report and local knowledge and see whether all three are in agreeance. If not, to question the discrepancies.

(g) To “look after” applicants in their Ward. This will entail taking on board Government policies and guidance scrutinising local policies and changing them where necessary. Adding local knowledge and “common sense” looking at each application on its own merits, allowing where possible – taking into account interests of neighbours.

(h) To provide a democratic input both to the construction of the Local Plan (LDF, etc) and to the subsequent determination of applications in response to that Plan, LDF or whatever.
To exercise local knowledge and understanding in the interpretation of the Plan, LDF, etc.
From time to time to propose the updating of the Plan etc, to enable the theory of the Plan to be kept sensibly up to date with changes in the local environment.

(i) To act as the democratically elected representative of the residents in the Sub-Committees’ areas.

(j) To consider and decide on applications that have a local interest beyond the remit of the standard rules and perhaps involving local knowledge of situation and perhaps, common sense when the officers and Government rules do not permit such decisions to be taken i.e. application for a farm worker’s house for a large local farm in the Green Belt.
Application to change a last remaining local pub of a village into a dwelling.
To monitor and comment on applications that while straightforward, are not in the public interest. With the massive amount of delegation that now goes on this is not always easy.

(k) To provide a balance.
To represent local opinion.

(l) The members’ role in DC Committees is reactive i.e. to provide checks and balances on officers’ decisions on contentious applications. I think there is a reasonable balance between what officers may see as perverse decisions by Committees and what seems to the average member to be anti-social decisions by the officers. This “scrutiny” role applies to about 10% of the applications, I understand – and in the interests of efficiency and the inhabitants of Waverley, the proportion appears to be about right. But it is too easy for members to get bogged down in double garages and dormer windows and on the planning side, I think members ought to have a more pro-active role in formulating policy. With the demise of the policy-making committees such as Environment, Leisure and Housing, the ordinary member is in danger of feeling less effective and of having little else to do than be a Council-supported social worker in his or her Ward. It is the PBI syndrome (Poor Bloody Infantry), or (to change the metaphor) we cannot all be chiefs, but we would like to be a little more than just Indians. I do not know what extra meetings or arrangements would be required to give members a say in policy-making.

(m) To bring local knowledge and concerns to the officers’ expertise.
To advise constituents on the process.
To scrutinise all local applications.

(n) To help in the determination of local planning policy. To administer and interpret those planning policies for each planning application – though in reality many of these decisions may be delegated.

(o) To represent a fair and lawful view with the community’s current and future best interest at heart. To ensure preservation and maintain balance taking into effect infrastructure throughout working with other agencies. To know and live within the area mindful of both parties (not political) when considering applications.

(p) Knowledge and understanding of local area.
Understanding of the local plan.
Understanding the planning process and ability to advise the public on this process.

(q) Injection of detailed knowledge combined with a sound understanding of planning regulations and policy – leading to non-political decision making process

(r) To give an overall view on the facts of each case together with neighbourhood and other objections e.g. highways, environmental (1) in pursuit of fairness and consistency as far as the application is concerned and (2) in applying consistency with policy guidelines, Local Development Plan etc, leisure needs, traffic implications and sustainability e.g. public transport provision.

(s) In Development Control, members obviously need to keep an eye on local applications in particular (and occasionally be prepared to let officers have any relevant information of which they might not be aware). In Committee, Members act as decision makers, to discuss and evaluate, and possibly provide an occasional check on what officers may be reporting and recommending.
Looking forward, the role of Members, as we move into a changing planning climate, is likely to develop from that where a lot of energy is spent on controlling development to more emphasis on policy making to meet the needs of the local communities.
In planning policy making – historically, while some Members have been engaged fully (i.e. those in formulating the Local Plan), others have been quite peripheral (commenting on that work – or not – in Council). Ideally, more members could be engaged in forming policies. Whilst we have the present LDF SIG and others (Dunsfold and Hindhead), policy making in future could involve more members in a constructive and positive role.

(t) Knowledge and understanding of local area.
Understanding of the local plan.
Understanding the planning process and ability to advise the public on this process.

2. Question

In your view are four Area Development Control Sub-Committees needed?

Yes15No5

Please give reasons for your answer.

Answers

(a) Waverley covers a large geographic area involving both town and rural communities and so area representation on Planning Committees ensures that decision making is, and is as far as possible, “seen to be” taken by those representing the various localities.

(b) In view of the public’s interest in planning matters to enable the widest possible number of Councillors to be seen as participating and enabling 1 above to take place, particularly with reference to local knowledge.

(c) Because it is essential for the Members to be very familiar with the general area covered in the Borough and to be readily available to the representations made regarding applications. Four areas in the Borough is minimum to carry this out.

(d) The Area Sub-Committees provide a helpful local view with the local members often “knowing best”. It is noticeable that the Sub-Committees will often take into account local circumstances to a greater degree than independent control.
I would question the role of Development Control given the existence of the Area Committees. Their tasks often duplicate.

(e) Because of the large area of the Borough and the dispersion of the population into four large blocks, it is vital to maintain four Committees in order to preserve the input of local Members who know their area and have a stake in it.

(f) It gives local Members a chance to look at the plans in their own and adjacent Wards where they have local knowledge rather than one Committee considering the whole of Waverley.

(g) Waverley is made up of quite different areas. I believe Committee Members should live “reasonably near application, but not too near” when application moves onto main Development Control. People living the other side of Farnham deliberating on Ewhurst applications!!!

(h) This depends on whether or not you believe there is any place for the democratic process in Development Control. You could eliminate it, but my judgment is that that would be dangerous.
It is clearly the case that most Members’ knowledge and understanding of parts of the Borough distant from their own Wards is quite limited.
Decisions made by the main Development Control Committee are frequently greeted with derision by the local populace. That is dangerous.
If you do not have several Sub-Committees, it would be better not to waste Councillors’ time on DC.

(i) The four areas are dissimilar geographically. It is essential for Sub-Committee Members to have local knowledge of their specific areas.

(j) While economics of the Council play a part i.e. we must not waste money; the results of some planning consents are highly visible, not always desirable and are usually with the local community for a very long time; it is they who have to look at and perhaps suffer the results of Waverley’s decisions.
The local community in my experience, while they do not always agree with the decisions taken, are happier if the due process is seen to have been transparent and logical.
Combining planning areas will necessitate reducing Local Councillor voting power unless you are going to have an unwieldy and large Committee and reducing the number of planning areas will not make the decision process any quicker in my view!
Better to leave it as it is.

(k) Waverley Borough Council covers a very large and diverse area. None of the major centres of the Borough are even remotely similar.

(l) Each area has its own distinct character and each Area Committee has its own ethos and way of making decisions and its own friendliness. Other Members’ areas are, in their way, a foreign country. Visiting application sites and attending site meetings would involve much more travelling.
The meetings sometimes go on late, and if say, two Area Committees were merged, the agendas would be twice as long and there would have to be twice as many meetings for twice as many Members. Making the new two Area Committees smaller would disenfranchise several members. I think it is true to say that all Members value their membership of the Area Committees and their hands-on activity in them. To reduce the numbers would increase the sense of alienation mentioned in my answer to Question 1.

(m) People must be convinced that local views are heard. Public perception of fairness is vital for the process to succeed and too many decisions taken at a distance will damage that perception.

(n) Local communities identify with their local environments and wish to protect the “local” nature of their areas of residence and work. They look to their Local Councillors to represent their views and to control the planning process in their areas. They do not want regionalisation!

(o) Although all Members have knowledge of Waverley, those living within their represented area will have greater understanding and more detailed knowledge of their local community and how it operates.

(p) The overriding criteria should be:-

i) enabling Members to discuss critical planning issues
ii) the public having the change to speak and be present at these discussions
iii) 3 committees – east, west and central could suffice (the Borough is a difficult geographical area!).

(q) Probably Western Area has sufficient buildings to stand alone but other 3 maybe able to be combined. Local representation would need careful definition within a combined committee.

(r) If it is possible to regroup the Sub-Committees into just two or three areas, this might reduce workload for officers. My worry is about the public question time and I would not on those grounds agree that the meetings should all be in Godalming – perhaps two meeting points could be considered as reasonable compromise.

(s) Four seems less important than in the early days of Waverley, 30 years ago. Two, possibly, three, might be about right. It would probably be sensible to keep the Development Control Committee as a “check and balance” mechanism.
Decision making by fewer Area Committees could improve the consistency of decisions and also reduce the occasional tendency of Members to rely upon the Development Control Committee to make the final decision. (The pressures put on Members by local interests can be very strong and they sometimes feel free to indulge those pressures knowing the DC can make the actual decision.) Fewer Area Committees of similar and fair size, i.e. not as small as Eastern is now, would retain the input of local Members while also, through a wider spread of membership, encourage balanced decision making.
Having fewer Committees would also mean that less officer time would be spent on Committee processes and would ease pressures on the Department. More officer time could be spent on things other than Committee work. For example, it could allow more focus on Enforcement.
Waverley has been criticised (e.g. in CPA) for having the DC system it does. It is very unusual, possibly unique. Many other districts with similar areas (countryside with market towns and villages) have two Committees (e.g. north and south, east and west). Not all of them have a “parent” DC Committee, but there are advantages in having one. (Hardly anyone else, if anyone, has four!)

(t) The overriding criteria should be:-

i) enabling Members to discuss critical planning issues
ii) the public having the change to speak and be present at these discussions
iii) 3 committees – east, west and central could suffice (the Borough is a difficult geographical area!).

3. Question

Some changes in officer delegation with regard to Development Control have recently been introduced – what further improvements in the Development Control process would you like to see which would improve the process and Waverley’s performance in dealing with planning applications?

Answers

(a) See comments on 4. below.

(b) The interface officer/client needs consideration. Whilst Waverley is not a free planning advisor, when advice is given that is followed, it should not subsequently be withdrawn or modified.

(c) To make residents’ objections relevant to subsequent application when the change is only minor.
To make easier for local residents to give their views on subsequent applications.
To let residents know the result of appeals.
To stop developers building something which is not specific to the application then obtain consent in retrospect.

(d) Tighten up scheme of delegation as there are still too many ………/inconsistencies/………………..
Provide on line application monitoring as soon as possible.
Simplify public speaking procedures and rules.
Involve other relevant bodies such as Parish Councils and Highway Authority to greater degree and open dialogue if their input appears illogical.

(e) Delegate as much as possible to officers.

(f) Applicants to be aware of whole process – officer delegation, where Parish/Town Council and Members fit in so that more plans are passed on officer delegation.

(g) As Members we get too many incidents of applicants saying “they have been advised by officers, acted accordingly and then refused”. I believe some of this is true and some is not. Officers should be aware of this. Officers should give more advice as to what is acceptable rather than the applicant having to have several “goes” at the application with agent expense being much increased.

(h) I did not think the recent changes were improvements. I think they have reduced the quality of the process.

(i) No further delegation to officers should be made as this would seriously undermine the democratic process.

(j) No comment.

(k) A more rapid registration of planning applications.
More discussions with developers and consultants.

(l) See Question 1.

(m) I worry about decisions being rushed through to meet targets, but Members must be much more active in monitoring all applications that are made in their Ward. Perhaps better definitions of role should be spelt out for everyone.

(n) I accept the need for delegation and believe that such powers should be extended to the maximum ………. extent. However, there is a need for a more rigorously applied definition and delineation of the powers to ensure that all “contentious” planning applications come before the Committees.

(o) A split between domestic and commercial applications large scale application should be dealt with by officers with more commercial experience.

(p) Changes in officer delegation already apparent. Could we look at the process of alerting neighbours to applications involving large developments e.g. house to be demolished: 10 flats to be erected in place. Currently opposition is very quickly aroused by the standard letter and available plans. Is there any change of better consultation; clear standard plans – so that Councillors and public have a clearer idea of proposals.

(q) Rationalise Area Committees.

(r) More consistency between different applications. Is a copy of the site plan to be copied to members with the Committee papers or not? and last minute changes by the applicant and additional letters on the day of the meeting should not be allowed.
It is too soon to judge the effects of the changes in officer delegation as they have not worked through to the performance data fully.

(s) We probably need to see what sort of improvements the current measures are achieving. Assuming that they are effective, then any further improvements need to sustain quality as well as prompt delivery.

(t) Changes in officer delegation already apparent. Could we look at the process of alerting neighbours to applications involving large developments e.g. house to be demolished: 10 flats to be erected in place. Currently opposition is very quickly aroused by the standard letter and available plans. Is there any change of better consultation; clear standard plans – so that Councillors and public have a clearer idea of proposals.

4. Question

In the light of views you may have received from your constituents, what do you consider could be provided to improve the customer experience of users of the service?

Answers

(a) A greater willingness of case officers to discuss with applicants, their plans and to give advice as to what is or is not likely to be acceptable. Many applicants do not really understand either the planning process or the criteria against which their application will be judged. I believe that “help” through the process would lead to greater understanding, less frustration and probably more acceptable applications.

(b) Not answered.

(c) Mostly covered in my answer to question 3.
To let objectors know clearly the results of appeals.

(d) Increase transparency.
More information online.

(e) Constituents views to me concern their view that big projects are given too easy a passage, bearing in mind the fact that they think that they ignore logic and local views, whilst on the other hand, small projects - extensions, conservatories, replacement barns etc are subject to the full bureaucratic panoply. Can we not handle small projects on a “one hit” basis speedily?

(f) Most constituents are happy with the help officers give them. When they are not, it often appears that the applicant has not understood the Waverley Local Plan.

(g) As in 3 above, also all applications having a reply inside the eight weeks. This should be possible with an efficiently run Development Control Department.

(h) Cancel the recent changes to the process.
Make the Local Plan/LDF much tighter, so that there is little or no room for debate.
Set out to keep the Plan/LDF up to date by frequent SPGs or whatever the equivalent will be under the new process.
Don’t set up an SPG SIG which then doesn’t have any meetings for 18 months. That raises the decision level considerably and Councillors cannot defend such behaviour by officers.

(i) There is a consensus that the officers should be more helpful.

(j) Many people do not understand the ramifications of Town and Country Planning. They understand the need for planning control, but not the reasons why a decision is what it is, especially if it goes wrong way for them. Also see 5 below.

(k) More rapid response to the initial application - even if it is to be rejected for trivial reasons such as forgetting to sign the cheque.

(l) A friendly and informative approach by officers is much appreciated. Applicants are making big decisions and preparing to spend a lot of money and emotional capital and a stern and bureaucratic manner on the part of an officer can cause much upset. Helpfulness and consistency should be paramount and applicants should be treated as individuals who have feelings and may be vulnerable.

(m) Simple factsheets on the process and clear answers to factual questions.

(n) The main adverse criticism I have heard from constituents concerns time delays, seemingly illogical advice/decisions and inconsistency of advice. The time delays are hopefully being addressed by recent measures in the Department. The more important of the other observations are frequently directed at advice from outside bodies e.g. SCC Highways Agency etc. Perhaps we need someone to oversee the consistency and type of advice being provided by these sources.

(o) Difficult one, as much information is already there and can be accessed if required. Constituents come to us in an attempt to give us a view they feel may influence the outcome, rather than attain the facts direct from officers at WBC.

(p) Constituent unhappy with initial contact - insufficient explanation. Needed a very simple answer to her question!
Constituent dissatisfied with somewhat flippant reply by junior Planning Officer. Where possible, better focused advice to the public is needed.

(q) Ability to talk to planners in advance and during the process of planning applications. Easy access to regional, County, Local Plans and policy documents.

(r) May be a ready reckoner type guide (certainly for customers planning small scale changes) as to what can they do/or not do, when they should apply for permission. (Members certainly do not like receiving retrospective applications to consider) e.g.:-

(s) Apart from those who are disgruntled because they do not agree with certain decisions, what people seem to want most is access to information and good communication and to know that someone is hearing their views and concerns.
Quite a lot of information is becoming available on line, which is much appreciated. However, perhaps we still need to think a bit about how we can help those without computer access or skills?
Another thing is consistency in decision making - if people detract any inconsistencies e.g. in different areas, they are naturally perturbed. [This can sometimes be linked to the Sub-Committees].
[Those who have attended meetings like the new technology for presenting drawings for all to see and public speaking is much appreciated].

(t) Constituent dissatisfied with somewhat flippant reply by junior Planning Officer. Where possible, better focused advice to the public is needed.

5. Question

D you have any further suggestions or comments on improving the Development Control process?

Answers

(a) Planning applications are usually determined against relatively small scale plans with few dimensions. Only after obtaining planning consent are larger scale detail plans prepared. There seems to be no mechanism for cross checking that the detailed constructed plans fully comply in all respects with the drawings and other conditions associated with the original planning consent. Small differences between the plans produced at these different stages can lead to major concerns on site with buildings being perceived to be larger, of different shape or even in a different location.

(b) No response.

(c) To inform residents of the progress of an application at intervals so they keep being informed.
To reverse residents perception that the local ……….. are toothless and there is nothing which can be done to control what developers want to do.

(d) More information to be provided to local members re local application.
Invite local members/Committee Members to Appeal Hearings to give evidence for the Council.
Improve staff training and in some cases, tackle attitude problems.

(e) Maintain the four local Area DC Committees and scrap the Central DC taking major controversial projects to full Council, thereby removing one layer of the process and maintaining local input.

(f) To employ more Planning Officers.

(g) Officers should refrain giving advise on policy and legal matters. The political side should remain with Members - NOT PARTY POLICIAL.
Members must retain right to bring applications to Committee.

(h) Covered in Q4 response.

(i) There has already been too much change. It is essential that no further changes are made. More effective enforcement is essential. The objective of the planning process should be to ensure that plans are approved which will benefit the community. The planning process should not be distorted by aiming to achieve some statistic target of questionable value.

(j) Clearer officer reports would help. Other officers and Council members who have been on the Council a while usually understand the situation in a report, but in my experience the public often do not. A better report will not necessarily make things quicker, but if “Joe Public” can understand the reasons behind a decision, although he may not like it, he will be less antagonistic about the process, the Council and the officers.

(k) I feel we are moving in the right direction, let everything settle down for a while - then think again. Continual change is not good for morale.
Flexitime, working from home - stop the overtime which staff give to WBC.

(l) The question of inadequate enforcement arises continually (in Eastern, the only Area Committee with which I am acquainted). Infringements seem to take ages to be corrected, legal interests seem to take ages to be established.
This is frustrating for Members and does not do Waverley’s reputation any good.

(m) Convincing the public that control is as important as development in all publications nobody (or very few!) is opposed to some development locally, but people do need to be reassured that developers are not being given carte blanche to destroy the nature of the local area.

(n) Hopefully the work of the LDF SIG will include on overarching look at the whole Development Control process as it works through the changes being occasioned by the new development framework initiative.

(o) A clearer timescale i.e. date start and completion (approximately). Prioritise and split applications i.e. household domestic and commercial.
Other agencies to be present at meetings i.e. Highways.
Inexperienced Councillors (like myself) often don’t fully understand planning process in terms of legislation and need more training in preparation for the responsible task of making such decisions.

(p) 25% of the Area Committee should come from outside the area to prevent the locals “ganging up” on the officers. Would hopefully provide a more technically balanced approach.

(q) Continue workshops with parishes as various planning policy changes/develops.

(r) More consistency between different applications - is a copy of the site plan to be copied to members with the Committee papers or not and last minute changes by the applicant and additional letters on the day of the meeting should not be allowed.
It is too soon to judge the effects of the changes in officer delegation as they have not worked through to the performance data fully.

(s) To continue the public speaking process and develop it as and when appropriate.
To help people understand the processes that we have to abide by.
All Committees to have electronic presentations, this could mean all meetings at Godalming.

(t) 25% of the Area Committee should come from outside the area to prevent the locals “ganging up” on the officers. Would hopefully provide a more technically balanced approach.

Comms/o&s/2004-05/048