Banning the public from council planning advisory group meetings has been labelled a ‘dictatorial’ decision by a leading housing campaigner.
The last few Horsham District Council Strategic Planning Advisory Group meetings have been cancelled as it prepares its draft Local Development Framework, which will set out a future housing plan for the district.
However, this week Claire Vickers (Con, Southwater), who took over as cabinet member for living and working communities in April, admitted that the advisory group meetings were still going on behind closed doors.
She said: “Since becoming the cabinet member for living and working communities, I have realised that we need to be able to have a more open and frank debate at our Strategic Planning Advisory Group (SPAG) meetings.
“I have therefore decided that we will no longer be holding SPAG meetings in public, as per other advisory groups of Horsham District Council.
“My advisory group will discuss evidence and the formulation of policy, which will be recommended to the cabinet and/or council for full debate and approval later in public, which also allows for public speakers if necessary.
“Additionally, I have decided to rename the advisory group Planning Policy Advisory Group (PPAG) to recognise its new focus in developing planning policy.”
Roger Smith, of the Sussex branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: “Cllr Vickers’ extraordinary decision to exclude the public from her advisory group is ill judged and dictatorial.
“After all, she and her colleagues are our elected representatives – and this is not the former Soviet Union.”
He added: “How can residents have confidence in councillors who are unwilling to discuss in public critical planning matters that will have far reaching consequences for communities in Horsham district?”
However, Ian Thwaites, leader of Keep Southwater Green, added: “I actually think it is a pragmatic and ultimately sensible decision.
“SPAG meetings were very unsatisfactory in that they were public but no public participation was allowed.
“Her point that there will be full public participation when the policy is debated by the council is relevant as well.”
He continued: “Provided she really does involve communities and provided she ensures there is real and not token consultation I do not think the loss of SPAG will be great.”