Council scraps planning notification letters
As from the New Year Hastings Borough Council will stop sending letters to notify residents of planning applications in their area. The move, confirmed at this week’s Cabinet meeting, has drawn a lot of criticism. Nick Terdre reports.
The decision to scrap notification letters was decided back in February as part of next year’s budget arrangements. It required a change to the Statement of Community Involvement (SCI) which was approved by this week’s Cabinet meeting.
Starting on 3 January notification of planning applications will be restricted to fixing a site notice on a nearby lamppost and posting information on the planning section of the council website; and in the case of larger projects notices will be placed in the local paper. Residents may also sign up to be alerted electronically when a planning application is submitted in their area.
At the Cabinet meeting Tory leader Cllr Rob Lee tabled an amendment to the budget provision which would have seen notification letters retained, but it was voted down 6-2 by the Labour majority. The update to the SCI was then approved by 6-1, with one Tory councillor, Andy Patmore, abstaining.
Sad day for local democracy
“It’s a sad day for the town and for local democracy,” Mr Lee told HOT. “A letter through the door is still the best way to notify people of planning applications in their immediate neighbourhood.”
Labour councillor Dawn Poole suggested to the meeting that councillors could help make the new arrangements work. “I pointed out that councillors have a role to play alongside the site notifications which will continue,” she told HOT. “As well as helping people sign up to the online notifications, if I think an application may be of particular concern, I let the two largest residents’ associations in my ward know.”
Chris Lewcock, secretary of the Hastings and Rye Liberal Democrats and a former local authority development control officer, disagreed with the decision to scrap notification letters. “It’s another example of trying to escape democratic accountability,” he told HOT.
Sensible comments foiled
“If people don’t know that a planning application is taking place, how can they possibly be expected to comment on it sensibly? And sometimes people want to support development proposals.”
Site notices and online alerts amounted to inadequate provision, in his view. “Especially in our winters, site notices tend to get blown away, and if you are house-bound you’re unlikely to see the site notice anyway,” he said.
“The internet won’t help at all unless you’ve got an internet connection and you’ve known to log in and make sure the council notifies you. It really doesn’t serve a purpose at all, particularly for the elderly.”
Less objections for developers
“The planning system has now become even less democratic and accountable, while greatly benefiting developers who will face less public objections,” said Chris Hurrell of Save Ecclesbourne Group (SEG), which has led protests against the so-called Bunker holiday home in Rocklands caravan park in Hastings Country Park.
“One of the reasons for the Rocklands fiasco was the failure to inform people of the Bunker application,” he said – in this case only two notification letters were sent out.
“This is a false economy that discriminates against those who do not possess a computer – generally the most deprived in our community. It will impact disproportionally on the very demographic that the Labour council claims to support.”
The measure was also criticised by by Andrea Needham of Combe Haven Defenders, whose particular concern is infrastructure and commercial projects.
“There are all sorts of reasons why just putting up site notices is not acceptable: they may get ripped down; people may not see them; housebound people who could be adversely affected will certainly not see them; disabled people who have to use motorised transport won’t see them; people may not see them in time to object to the application (you only have 21 days from when the site notice goes up),” she told HOT.
Democratic rights denied
“It’s all very hit and miss, and the only way to ensure that people know about planning applications that may affect them is to put the relevant notices through their doors. Anything less is – to my mind – a denial of democratic rights.”
According to the council the annual saving from scrapping notification letters will be an estimated £10,000. The motive, as explained in the budget statement, is to free up funds for two initiatives involving the planning department: a £6,000 a year increase in the corporate training budget and an annual £10,000 to fund office-based planning placements from the University of Brighton.
“It’s a relatively small amount of money compared to what the council wastes on consultants,” Mr Lewcock said. “They should stop commissioning pointless consultancies such as that on the Lido site in West Marina and the recent White Rock workshop.”
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