Fife Council Conservative Group Leader Dave Dempsey has voiced concerns over the way that ward councillors will be able to interact under the new planning regime.
Cllr Dempsey said â€œDuring the debate that ended in a decision to go to three planning committees in Fife, much was made of the fact that Fife used to have three such committees. However, this ignores two major points. First, most of the current councillors donâ€™t go that far back and so canâ€™t know whether the old regime was better or worse.
Second and much more importantly, weâ€™re now for the first time ever in a position where the site of a planning application will be represented under the multi-member ward system by two different types of councillor â€“ some that will decide the application and some that wonâ€™t.
Councillors on the new planning committees know exactly what they can and canâ€™t do because theyâ€™re doing it already. They canâ€™t make any utterance in advance that would indicate support or opposition. They must enter the committee meeting with any open mind and decide the application on planning issues only. Most find this fairly easy to do. Any councillor who feels he or she must make a public statement simply declares that at the start of the meeting and leaves the room at the appropriate time. This is very rare as most councillors want to help make the decision.
Under the new scheme, councillors who arenâ€™t on a planning committee can take up a cause, write to the press, speak at public meetings, etc. However, they canâ€™t â€œlobbyâ€ the councillors on the planning committee. So an email saying â€œTurn it downâ€ is taboo. Turning to the planning councillor in a community council meeting and saying â€œIt should be turned down, donâ€™t you think?â€ is presumably also taboo but what about addressing the same question to the chairperson of the community council? Is that lobbying? I donâ€™t know and, when I asked during the debate what the boundaries of lobbying are, the officials present couldnâ€™t immediately say.
Moreover, there are going now to be lots of occasions when councillors campaign for or against applications which their colleagues from the same ward and political party then vote on. If they vote in line with the campaign, there are bound to be questions asked, regardless of how proper the conduct is.
The Labour administration have rushed this change through without thinking out its implications. Expect a period of confusion.