WREXHAM councillors will not receive a list of planning decisions made using delegated powers for the foreseeable future.
At its monthly meetings, the authority’s planning committee receives a list of delegated decisions made by the planning department.
Many development applications are small-scale, non-controversial proposals that can be processed quickly by council officers under delegated powers. Major developments or plans which receive a certain number of objections come before the committee.
Due to staffing issues, a new IT system being implemented and potential savings to help plug the council’s predicted £23.8m budget deficit, senior planning officer Matthew Phillips asked councillors at this month’s meeting for a 10 month hiatus in publishing the list.
Chair, Holt Cllr Mike Morris, explained that “staffing difficulties” still exist within the planning department, while Mr Phillips explained a combination of factors had made providing the list increasingly time consuming.
He said: “This is something I’ve been doing myself at the moment in addition to all of the committee administration and it does take quite a bit of time in addition to other responsibilities, given staffing pressures with a couple of team vacancies.”
Mr Phillips explained that due to the budget situation, extra support was not available.
“The team will be under pressure so it’s not something I can hand over to colleagues in the business support team for the foreseeable future”, he said.
“There’s typically anything between 40 to 80 decisions on this list per month and existing issues with the current system mean probably two thirds of those are done manually by myself.”
As an alternative, members are being guided towards the council’s website. All information about delegated planning applications will be made available online as soon as a decision is made, and members will be shown how they can access them via the website if needed.
The request provoked debate amongst the committee about the list’s importance, transparency, and accessibility.
Ruabon Cllr Dana Davies (Lab) said: “It’s transparency for the public, isn’t it? A number of our decisions are made through officer delegated decisions.
“I think it does have to be in the public domain whereby the public aren’t having to search like we would have to?”
Cllr Davies also asked why a senior officer was having to pull the list together and not for someone in an administration role.
“We’ve got a duty to be as transparent as possible to the public”, she said.
“Shouldn’t it be an admin role and not a senior officer’s role?”
Cllr Morris countered this, saying that an online search of the planning portal has long been the public’s only way to view applications.
“It’s not that transparent now”, he said.
“There’s no hard copy published I’m aware of, it’s all online.
“If they (the public) want to view the documents for the planning committee they’ve got to go online and view them.
“There’s no other place this actually appears in the public domain other than online.”
Cllr Davies added: “You’d be surprised at the number of residents in Wrexham county that are very interested in the planning process for obvious reasons.”
On the staffing issues, Mr Phillips said until recently there were four posts with two people covering those, but he was hopeful those posts will be filled in the next few weeks.
Cllr Morris said if members have an issue with a delegated decision to contact a planning officer on an individual basis.
Mr Phillips said he would be happy to take questions directly.
Glyn Ceiriog Cllr Trevor Bates (Ind) said: “I value that list and wouldn’t want to lose it, to be honest.
“It affects every councillor across all 56 members because if you’re not on the planning committee it’s a very quick source of information to see what has been granted in the last month. I haven’t got the time to be looking through each and every application.
“It’s like scrutiny committees saying we don’t want the minutes to be reported. It’s a public document and it needs to be there for clarity.”
Cllr Morris again steered councillors towards information being available through the online planning portal.
Grosvenor Cllr Marc Jones (Plaid) said he would rather senior officers be focused on “more contentious decisions”, adding that councillors should be aware of any issues with planning applications and raise them before they are delegated.
He moved that the publishing of the delegated decisions list be temporarily suspended and this was supported by the committee.