COUNCILLORS in Wrexham have hit back at claims that their decisions on planning applications are deterring developers from investing in the area.
An independent review was recently carried out into planning services in the county borough, which identified concerns over the involvement of politicians in the planning process.
The Welsh Local Government Association and Planning Advisory Service highlighted several cases where councillors refused proposals against the advice of officers without sufficient evidence.
It led to some decisions made by Wrexham Council’s planning committee being overturned on appeal, occasionally resulting in costs being incurred.
The planning experts who undertook the review said decision-making needed to be improved due to the negative impact on investment.
They also accused committee members of being more interested in being “community champions” than taking a consistent approach to applications.
However, politicians have strongly defended themselves against the comments.
Speaking at a meeting of the local authority’s executive board held Tuesday, March 8, New Broughton councillor Alan Edwards said:
“I feel councillors and especially the planning committee have been quite hard done by in that report.
“I’ve heard officers say to the planning committee that they’ve gone against their advice and cost the council money.
“But if you’re going to give decisions because you’re scared of what’s going to happen in Cardiff, you might as well give Cardiff all the planning decisions now.
“Most people know I’ll be finishing and if my legacy as a councillor is as a community champion then I’ll settle for that because that’s what I believe councillors are. They’re not robots.”
The service review was partly triggered due to concerns over a deterioration in relationships between officers and councillors.
In March last year, an attempt was made to hold a vote of no confidence against senior planning officials amid anger over how a large housing development was handled in Cllr Edwards’ ward.
Following the review, the experts suggested the number of politicians on the planning committee should be reduced from 20 down to 12, with members being required to undertake extra training.
Llay councillor Bryan Apsley said he disagreed with the recommendations.
“If we reduce the influence of the planning committee members, does that not mean that the link between them and the residents is greatly weakened?
“There’s a comment in there that the significant proportion of the committee members appear to be preferring to act as community champions.
“As Alan Edwards said, I for one would be proud to accept that title.”
However, planning committee chair Mike Morris said changes were needed to improve the decision-making process.
“There is a difference in terms of sitting on the planning committee and being a local member.
“Unless that’s fully understood, we’re doomed to fail and doomed to give everybody a bit of frustration.
“We all get pressure from the community on all sorts of applications, but bear in mind that some of these developers are spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on their application, so they have a right for their application to be considered properly.”
Council leader Mark Pritchard stressed no decision was being made on the size of the committee at the meeting.
He said it would be considered by a working group before a final outcome is announced at a later date.
He said: “I hope you feel that you’ve had the opportunity to voice your concerns today.
“I think it was a very thorough review and that’s why I’ve gone out of my way to thank everybody involved.
“These individuals are impartial, and they’ve got no loyalty to elected members, to planning committee or to officers. They had to put what they felt were the problems.”
Executive board members voted to back the recommendations put forward as part of the review at the end of the debate.
They included introducing a new back office system and a review of working practices to avoid delays in planning decisions.
It was also agreed the authority should take on extra planning staff to improve the service.