Lib Dems vow to keep public’s voice at planning meetings

Liberal Democrats are opposing “undemocratic” moves to stop people speaking at planning meetings in Hull.

Several members of the planning committee believe members of the public do not add to debates because they are not experts in planning matters.

But former chair of planning Lib Dem councillor Craig Woolmer says he will fight to ensure both residents and developers continue getting the chance to speak.

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Public speaking has been allowed at planning meetings at Hull Council since 2001 and controversial decisions such as building the Northern Academy on Queen Elizabeth Playing Fields and proposals to build Barratt Houses on the former Reckitts playing fields have attracted large numbers of speakers.

In one case it took two hours to get through a long list of speakers on just one application.

But Coun John Fareham (Con), another former chair of planning, said people could still make their views known by writing in: “For myself I think it has not really added to the proceedings except make them an awful lot longer.

“What you get at the moment are very well prepared developers with experienced consultants all smoothly coming and giving you lots of planning reasons. It is not an even contest.

“It really does favour the professional applicants – it doesn’t favour real people.”

However Coun Woolmer said: “It’s an attempt to cut down on the time the committee takes, but it is fundamentally undemocratic and will lead to poor decision-making.

“Making sure concerns are put forward and heard is a vital part of the process and makes sure the committee takes decisions in light of all of the views, opinions and facts.” He added, “I’m strongly opposed to the committee removing public speaking and will fight to make sure residents and developers can still have a fair hearing at committee. This wouldn’t have happened in my time as chair.”

Sub-postmaster Serji Singh, who had led a long-running campaign against plans to build on the former Reckitts ground, said it was a “backward step.”

He said: “On paper you can’t express yourself. An A4 piece of paper isn’t a character or a voice.

“It is vital opinions are put over as they can sway the moment and people can understand the passion.

“What’s the point of a reception at the planning office?

“You may as well close it down and hand in written submissions.”

Councillors are being asked to decide on three options next Tuesday, including stopping public speaking altogether, cutting it from the current three minutes per speaker to two minutes or retaining the status quo.

A report to councillors says the current system does give a level playing field.

It says: “It seems clear that the public welcome this opportunity and it opens up planning decisions to more public comment.

“More and more local planning authorities are adopting the public speaking system.

Apart from the time added to the committee proceedings there seems to be no disadvantages to the system and it should continue.”

However it suggests that cutting the time to two minutes would give people the time to make their points succinctly and avoid repetition.

Current chair Sean Chaytor (Lab) admitted he had been in favour of removing the right to public speaking, but the report “made him think again” and cutting speeches to two minutes could be a solution.

He said: “People come along and they are very emotional and committed and I respect that but at the end of the day it doesn’t help us as a planning committee as we have to take purely planning grounds into consideration.

“The public are not experts.”

Councillors will make a decision on July 19.