New national guidance states that such advice should be made available to the public.
The recommendation on the report circulated with last night’s agenda papers, was to “note the restrictions in place on communicating confidential and commercially sensitive information disclosed at pre-application discussions.”
Member of the public, Jessica Bailey, who had patiently sat through three hours of the committee meeting waiting for this item, addressed councillors.
She said that she was unhappy with the committee report because it did not mention the latest “Probity in Planning” guidance produced by the Local Government Association and Planning Advisory Service. This stated that pre-application discussions should be made public, unless there was a very good reason for them being confidential.
She added that the information commissioner was investigating a complaint against EDDC, not simply considering a complaint as the committee report had indicated.
Mrs Bailey added that the report was incorrect in that it stated that release of information on pre-application discussions was considered on a case-by-case basis. She said she had confirmation verbally, and in writing that EDDC held a blanket policy of confidentiality.
An officer told the committee that the information commissioner had, since the report was published, confirmed that they were now investigating the complaint.
A legal officer explained to the committee the council’s position on pre-planning application confidentiality, which seemed to focus on commercially sensitive issues and worrying the community causing unnecessary concern, if the advice came to nothing.
Cllr Roger Giles said that he didn’t think the committee had any choice but to be more open about pre-application discussions because of the new national guidance. He read out the relevant paragraph, which can be found on page 12 of this link – http://www.local.gov.uk/c/document_library/get_file?uuid=e0cde66c-8cda-4f56-b784-a45cdd41f089&groupId=10180
Cllr Giles added that the standards committee had already endorsed the guidance contained within the new Probity in Planning, so it would be inappropriate and inconsistent to refuse to follow this aspect of it.
I said that no one was suggesting commercial sensitivity should be breached as this was a valid exemption under the Freedom Information Act. But how was confidentiality in this case defined? It seemed to me that it was more about simply doing what developers wanted and that wasn’t a good enough reason to withhold the information.
Cllr Giles made a proposal that the committee endorsed the new Probity in Planning guidance and that pre-application discussions be a matter of public record, unless there was a strong reason for confidentiality.
But Cllr Peter Bowden said that releasing the information would be “opening a can of worms.”
Myself Cllr Giles and were the only ones voting in favour of making pre-application advice public, so it failed.
Instead, an alternative proposal by Cllr Bowden won. He proposed that the committee await the outcome of the information commissioner’s advice, before giving a view.
This was supported by the majority of those present. A recorded vote took place, requested by Cllr Giles, which means the way each councillor voted will be recorded in the minutes.
The meeting was of course, audio recorded, and will be available from the link below, in a few days.