Changes to planning powers in Aberdeenshire could make it harder for residents to raise objections
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A discussion which is underway between planning officers and Aberdeenshire Councillors over the powers that both have to bring planning applications before a committee has sparked concerns from rural residents over a particular element which would make it more onerous to raise objections.
Proposals are being discussed by all area committees and next week come before Garioch and Buchan councillors.
The element raising concern is that "the scope of Member Notification for applications recommended for approval should be extended meaning that 10 letters of objection would be required before an application would be directly referred to Area Committee. "
The vast majority of planning applications are determined by planning officers using their professional knowledge and experience of planning legislation and planning policies.
However the decision is a judgment and the planning process requires the determination to be made by the local area committee in some circumstances.
Such applications benefit from the experience of local councillors whose responsibilities include representing the communities who elect them, and standing up for their rights.
At present in Aberdeenshire automatic referral to committee includes applications where the community council submits an objection or where six households submit objections within 21 days of validation.
The move to increase this has raised queries over the proposal, including from local resident Dr Paul Davidson from Kintore.
He said: "In small rural communities, where only a few households may be directly affected by a planning development, getting six valid objections can be a significant hurdle.
"The Planning Service are proposing to increase this hurdle even more, by requiring objections from 10 households to have the application automatically determined by local area committee.
"A higher number could be justified in dense urban communities, but is inappropriate for most areas in Aberdeenshire."
He continued: "Public apathy is the great ally of the developer.
"Fewer public objections due to apathy or not being aware of contentious planning applications also reduces the workload on the Planning Service, but at the downside of enabling more detrimental developments.
"The council’s proposal is to increase the delegated powers of Planning Officers, whilst keeping the same notification arrangements - Letter to neighbours with property within 20 m of the planning site boundary; Advertisement in a local paper (even if it has minimal circulation in the local community); Publication on the authority website; Weekly email to community council secretaries listing planning applications for the previous period; No notification on the council’s Facebook or Twitter page.
"So there is no attempt at balancing the impact of increased delegation powers by making applications more widely known to the community.
"Many people affected by a planning application don’t get to learn about the application before it’s determined, and therefore are not in a position to object.
"Having an application determined at committee means the proposals and the planning processes administered by the Planning Service are subject to more scrutiny than when delegated to the case
officer, and requires the reason for the decision to be made public, which is not the case for delegated decisions.
"The council’s report justifies the change based on Aberdeenshire “only” processing 92.2 per cent of all planning application by powers delegated to officers in the three-year period compared to an average of 96.1 per cent for Scotland as a whole.
"The 4 per cent difference might or might not be statistically significant, but without information on the variation amongst other council areas, and no analysis of the reasons why the number is higher for the Shire, the significance cannot be determined.
"For example, there is no corresponding analysis of procedures in other local authority areas to see whether the shire criterion of fivr or more objections is atypical.
"The council also acknowledges that the annual number of applications which would be affected by this change is in single figures so will have very little effect on the statistics, yet would make the Planning Service less accountable to the public.
"The proposals to increase the number of public objections to trigger decision by local area committee in Aberdeenshire should be rejected by councillors."
Another element being discussed is the proposed change is to remove the right of local members to refer an application to committee when it is recommended for refusal by officers.
As Dr Davidson commented: "This change will reduce developers’ opportunity to lobby members, and will have a much greater impact in reducing the number of committee referrals.
"The Planning resource required to deal with the committee referral and any subsequent appeal will be less, whilst still allowing the applicant a right of appeal to the Local Review Board.
"As such it would be a sensible amendment to make."