Up until the 15 January this year councillors were bound by a strict(ish) set of rules in relation to giving their views on planning applications, in advance of the decision or at a time before all the facts were known. 

But this law, known as ‘pre-determination’ has now been scrapped.

Pre-determination did not mean that a councillor could not give a view, however, it did mean that a councillor had to be careful not to be too aggressive in opposing an application at an early stage, or for example campaigning against it.  If this happened the councillor (if on a planning committee) could have been described as having ‘pre-determined’ their position and be excluded from the vote and debate. 

This happened twice to me while on Ottery St Mary Town Council in 2009.  I had very publicly opposed both the Tesco and Sainsbury applications in Ottery, and as a result had to withdraw from the planning committee’s debate and vote.  I was however, allowed a three minute speech before withdrawing from the room.

I was also challenged by another councillor last year, who lodged a formal complaint against me.  The complaint centred around a pledge I had signed up to, to protect the countryside, during the election campaign last year.  The councillor concerned claimed that because I had signed up to this pledge that I had ‘pre-determined’ my position and should not have debated or voted on a large-scale planning application at Tipton St John. 

I argued at the meeting where I was challenged that I had expressed a general view and that this was a pre-disposition.  A pre-disposition to a particular view is perfectly permissable.  The complaint was not upheld.

Pre-determination was particularly frustrating for councillors who had been elected on the back of a particular issue and then found themselves unable to get involved in any decision-making about that issue.

However, it seems that councillors may now have more leeway in being outspoken about applications, prior to a decision taking place – see this link aimed at developers, who may be hopeful that councillors will engage more with them:  http://www.localism-agenda.com/2012/01/abolishing-predetermination-what-it-really-means/

A legal briefing from EDDC to members urges caution and councillors still must have an open mind when determining an application, but as I see it the removal (or at least part removal) of a gag on councillors’ freedom of speech can only be a good thing for democracy.

Photo:  Election candidates who had signed up to The Pledge, prior to the district elections last April.