The Gurn has received a copy of a letter sent today to senior Highland Council Planning officers by Nairn's two Community Councils. Copies of the Letter have also been sent to MSPs and other high heid yins at Glenurquart Road.
Here is the text of the letter:
JOINT LETTER FROM NAIRN WEST & SUBURBAN COMMUNITY COUNCIL
AND NAIRN RIVER COMMUNITY COUNCIL
Dafydd Jones, Acting Head of Development Management
Nicole Wallace, Head of Planning and Environment
David Mudie, Area Planning Manager (South)
Jimmy Gray, Chair, South Planning Applications Committee
Highland Council 27th April,2020
Dear Highland Council Officers and Councillor Gray,
Just after 8pm on Thursday 23rd April 2020 Community Councils received an email forwarding a notification you had issued titled “Maintaining our planning function during Covid – 19: Guidance for Community Councils”.
This was circulated to both Nairn Community Councils by their respective Secretaries and was read with varying degrees of worry and dismay by members.
This Saturday, 25th April we read the P&J headline which confirmed that we were not the only people deeply concerned by the proposed changes. The heading states “Horrifying change in decision-making”.
The element that causes most disquiet is that planning decisions will be made privately between the planning official and the Chair of the relevant planning committee. The remark made by Highland Councillor Andrew Jarvie – himself a member of the South Planning Applications Committee – is both disturbing and apt: he is quoted in the press as saying, “This proposal to allow one councillor to be judge, jury and executioner is quite horrifying.”
This amended Scheme of Delegation may be temporary. But it is totally undemocratic. It removes the key element of scrutiny by a representative committee. It appears that the full planning reports normally provided to committee will not be published or circulated. The remarks made by another Highland Councillor suggest that no members other than the Chair of the planning committee will receive papers. Such an arrangement prevents proper scrutiny and is neither transparent nor properly accountable. It places extraordinary powers in the hands of two individuals, the case officer and the committee Chair, who are effectively empowered to make decisions behind closed doors. There is no indication in the details provided so far of any review or appeal procedure. The Community Councils of Nairn find this totally unacceptable.
It is a cardinal principle of all planning legislation that the rules, the standards, the criteria and the procedures are consistent across the country. If Councils are now permitted to adopt substantially different arrangements to deal with current applications, this too is “undemocratic and unacceptable”, as Councillor Baxter has observed.
The area he represents, Lochaber, is – like Nairn – a tourist destination. Planning and development proposals are thus often particularly sensitive. We have recently lodged representations about two very contentious planning applications. In normal circumstances we would have expected both to be considered by SPAC and subjected to full public scrutiny and debate. We have pressed for them to be deferred. For such highly contentious applications to be assessed only by HC planning officials and decided by a single Councillor with no connections to the town of Nairn would be absolutely intolerable.
We have since learned that at least one of our own local Councillors, Peter Saggers, also has serious misgivings about the new procedural arrangements and the implications for major planning applications affecting Nairn which are currently on the table, and that he intends to raise the matter with the Leader of the Council.
The notification circulated on 23 April states that the new Scheme has been agreed by the Council and approved by the Scottish Government. It does not however indicate how – in the absence of public meetings and records – the Council made the decision on such a significant reassignment of its powers. Both national legislation and the Highland Council’s own existing Scheme of Delegation (section2) make clear that by law, Councillors have to decide (which implies a formal vote) on any alteration in the delegation of their own powers. The fact that councillors currently serving on planning committees have expressed dismay, including even the Vice-Chair of SPAC Cllr Carolyn Caddick, raises questions about the apparently arbitrary way in which the changes have been introduced.
It is also difficult to see how the Highland Council arrangements can be regarded as compatible with the terms of the Chief Planner’s letter of 3 April. There is no proposal for any “…. online alternative [to public consultation events], so that local people can still be engaged and have an opportunity to have an influence on proposals that affect them.”
The Chief Planner’s letter of 3 April also noted that “There are options available to enable decisions to continue to be made on planning matters. Local authorities already have the power to hold meetings virtually.” Indeed, the Highland Council has already and for some time convened and managed online or remote-linked videoconference meetings to enable participation in meetings by members around the region.
That being so, the claim reportedly made by a Highland Council spokesperson that there was “insufficient support to ensure a stable enough IT platform for the numbers who could be participating” is simply not credible. Highland Councillor Emma Roddick has commented that she is “…. sick of hearing that it's impractical or impossible to hold meetings during COVID”. As one of our own Community Councillors wrote in an email, “The excuse of not being able to use IT for virtual meetings is unacceptable as it’s actually very simple to set up with a vast array of platforms available”.
It is noteworthy that both Moray and Aberdeenshire have thought laterally and found alternative options which are as democratic and as fair as they can set up during the pandemic. These local authorities – and indeed organisations all over thecountry – are moving to, and able to manage, a transition to online meetings which enables planning committees (and other such groupings) to convene, discuss and make decisions on current matters.
There seems no reason why Highland cannot do likewise. There is no plausible justification for giving selected individuals the power to deliberate and make decisions on planning matters without public scrutiny or debate. Highland Council has IT staff who should be more than able to set up some form of teleconferencing if it really is not possible for the committee to meet in one of the larger chambers.
Engagement and accountability are cornerstones of the planning process. It would be unfortunate if the Highland Council were to be seen to be using the opportunity of the Covid crisis to bring in measures which might be described as introducing greater "social distancing" between local citizens, elected Councillors, and planning decisions.
As the two Community Councils representing the people of Nairn, we recognise that the present situation is difficult. We wish to see arrangements in place which provide for proper appraisal of planning proposals and which enable a process of publicly accountable, open and representative discussions and decision-making. We do not believe the procedure adopted by Highland Council meets this objective. We believe there are alternative, and better options for dealing with the present exceptional circumstances. We therefore urge the Council to reconsider their approach.
Yours sincerely, ( Issued and signed jointly)
Chair Nairn West & Suburban Community Council
Chair Nairn River Community Council
CC: Donna Manson
Kate Forbes MSP
Fergus Ewing MSP
Peter SaggersAndrew Baxter