The two planning committees at Horsham District Council could be rolled into one, if a recommendation is supported.
Currently all councillors can vote on major applications as all 44 sit on either the planning committee north or south.
However Horsham District Council is unusual in this respect as a number of similar authorities have only one much smaller committee with a fixed membership dealing with planning decisions.
Arguing in favour of the changes Philip Circus (Con, Chanctonbury) said: “It’s very helpful in dealing with the issue about predetermination because although in the Localism Act the issue of predetermination has been softened somewhat we all know the situation we face in our wards where residents put us against a wall and almost demand that we wave a flag in support of their position and the advantage of a single committee is we can do that.”
He added: “It seems to me that one of the advantages of a single committee is we get a greater seriousness and members it seems to me display a greater sense of empowerment when arguing and debating the issues.”
Councillors would still be able to address the committee on applications in their areas even if they were not a member.
But Peter Burgess (Con, Holbrook West), chairman of the council, put forward the opposite view.
He said: “I feel that is an argument we should not go down. It’s suggested current members are unprofessional and when I go to planning meeting I try to be as professional as I can and I object to that particular speech.”
Leonard Crosbie (LDem, Trafalgar) added: “The two committee system may have its faults but it currently works and works reasonably well.”
Andrew Baldwin (Con, Holbrook East) suggested there had been ‘numerous cases’ where decisions at planning committee north had been taken ‘without any planning grounds whatsoever’.
He added: “I think there is a lot of unprofessionalism with the current set up.”
HDC’s governance committee recommended a move to a single planning committee with a membership of 18 councillors, but only on the casting vote of its chairman Michael Willett, when it met on Tuesday (March 19),
The issue will now go to all councillors next month.
A number of other changes, aimed at reducing the number of call-ins to committee, were also recommended.
The most controversial was upping the number of objections from residents needed to send an application to committee from the current eight to 15.
Mr Willett (Con, Steyning) said they were trying to stop the less significant planning applications being called in for councillors to consider, which could instead be dealt with under delegated powers by officers.
Several members suggested the change would disadvantage rural areas.
Mr Circus said: “I think it should be eight, I do not think we should increase it to 15. I think it suggests an obstacle to residents which I do not think is desirable.”
Toni Bradnum (Con, Nuthurst) added: “Everything here is about reducing the number of applications coming before committee but I think it’s something like 94 per cent are dealt with in-house [by officers].
“We are only talking about a small percentage of applications that come before committee. I think this undermines residents’ confidence in the planning system because they want their right to speak and to be heard. It should not be consistently the local member who has to call it in. There should be some trigger.”
Officers pointed out that applications that did not meet the threshold of objections could still be called in to committee by a parish council or ward member.
Addressing the committee, Rudgwick resident Paul Kornycky suggested the change from eight to 15 was ’somewhat arbitrary and simplistic’.
He asked what would happen to call ins in cases of single-member wards where the councillor was the applicant.
Meanwhile Sue Kornycky argued local ward knowledge would be seen by the public as an ‘essential contribution to fair and supportable planning conditions’ and asked that the council consider each ward having one planning committee member each, with 22 wards across the district.
Other recommendations are for councillors who sit on the planning committee to have mandatory training, and for any changes to be reviewed after a year.
At the end of the meeting, Mr Burgess said: “It’s obvious from statements which have been made in here this evening that there have been a number of private meetings on this and I think that is very unhealthy ok.
“When a couple of people sit down and have a chat about it over coffee is one thing but we have heard at least two expressions of private meetings and I think we have to be very careful not to do that.”
Mr Willett replied: “There is a necessity to have private meetings before committees otherwise it would just run wild. It has not run wild.”