PROJECT: Delegation of planning application decision-making to Horncastle Town Council
ORGANISATIONS INVOLVED: Horncastle Town Council, East Lindsey District Council
In July, East Lindsey District Council in Lincolnshire granted delegated powers to Horncastle Town Council to decide minor householder, advertisement and change of use planning applications. Last month, the town council decided its first application under the new powers – the change of use for an office above a bank to a flat.
The delegated powers stemmed from the neighbourhood plan for Horncastle, which was made in May 2016. Very soon after the plan came into force, the two councils began discussing the idea, according to town council chair Brian Burbidge, who is also chair of the town’s planning and development committee. "Our initial reaction was that it was a great idea," he says.
For its part, the district council saw the idea as taking neighbourhood planning one step further. Delegated powers would be a benefit in terms of enabling local communities to have a more hands-on role in local decision-making, according to the district’s officer report on the proposed new structure. They would also demonstrate the benefits of putting a neighbourhood plan in place, the report said.
The categories of application that have been delegated to the town council were previously decided by district planning officers. "All we could do previously was comment on these applications," says Burbidge. "There were times when things were turned down that we supported and there didn’t appear to be any reason."
The district was behind the idea from the start, according to Chris Panton, its head of planning. "We were supportive, on condition that the town council members who would be making the decisions were suitably trained, that it would not cost the council anything and that it would be subject to a formal agreement that would be reviewed periodically to see how it was working," he says.
It took a year of discussions between the two councils to draw up an agreement covering their new relationship. In the course of the discussions, the town council regularly sent questions to officers at the district for clarification on various issues, says Amanda Bushell, Horncastle town clerk. "The district was very helpful and provided us with all the documents and advice we needed," she adds.
Under the deal that emerged, council officers validate the applications, draw up a report and make a recommendation before the application is handed over to the town council for determination.
In cases considered particularly complex, such as when an application faces a large number of objections, the district can reserve the right to make the decision.
A district council officer attends the relevant meetings of the town council planning committee to answer any questions about the applications being decided.
In the run-up to the consideration of the first application, town council planning committee members attended training run by the district for its own members. "I modified the training for the needs of the town councillors," says Panton. "Because they are dealing with a lot of householder stuff, I included a lot of content covering the effect on neighbours, such as overlooking and rights of light."
Burbidge says the agreement and the training have taught the town council to be "very careful". He adds: "For example, we cannot discuss applications with members of the public before the meetings and we have to give detailed reasons in line with planning rules for our decisions."
The arrangement addresses how a divergence of opinion on whether an application should be approved would be handled, explains Panton. "The agreement sets out the procedure if the town council refuses an application contrary to our advice," he says. "In that circumstance, we would help them defend it at appeal but, in the event that it lost and it was found the town council had acted unreasonably, it would be liable for any costs that were awarded."
Procedures are also in place to ensure that the process does not lead to the district council missing the eight-week target for deciding minor planning applications. "We only meet once a month," says Burbidge, "but if there was a danger of an application going over the statutory eight-week period, we would call an extraordinary meeting to make the decision."
The process of making the first decision went smoothly, according to both councils. The application for the change of use was for a building in a conservation area. The town council approved the proposal and did not add any extra conditions to the permission.
The new system will be subject to review after a year, but Burbidge is hoping the arrangement will continue beyond that point. "The planning officers and district councillors have a lot of knowledge about planning procedures," he says. "Town councillors have local knowledge – it is the integration of the two that makes it work. The new system gives us a lot of power locally to determine our own future."