• Councillors throw out plans to restrict public speaking

    18th December 2013 | News | Claire
  • The public speaking discussion took place at yesterday’s special development management committee meeting (planning committee).

    One of the recommendations was that all members of the public who wish to address the DMC on a planning application, must register to speak before the agenda is finalised.

    A further implicit recommendation was that that only those who have already submitted a written comment on an application, would be allowed to address the planning committee.

    See my earlier blog here for more information and a link to the agenda papers – http://www.claire-wright.org/index.php/post/more_public_speaking_restrictions_afoot_at_eddc/

    A senior planning officer set out the proposals in the committee report. He said that EDDC had generous speaking arrangements compared with other councils in Devon, that limited the number of speakers and asked for pre-registration of a few days.

    He continued that EDDC’s agendas needed to be better managed as many meetings were extremely long – some lasting up to 11 hours, adding that the recommendations were not designed to restrict public speaking.

    The first councillor to speak was Peter Sullivan, who said that although everyone on the planning committee recognised that there was a problem with the length of meetings, asked why only one aspect was being looked at.  Public speaking was the most important part of the process and there shouldn’t be restrictions on public access to meetings.

    We should be looking at how the public can participate more, not less, he said.

    Cllr Sullivan suggested that officers may speak for too long at the beginning of the meeting when outlining a planning application, because the committee report should already have been read by councillors.

    Referring to suggestions that officers should limit their contributions, Cllr Helen Parr said that this argument could also apply to members of the public who had their issues “carefully listed” in the officer committee report.

    Cllr Ben Ingham said that he was happy for officers to outline the case fully as this was helpful for members of the public to hear.  He said he supported the proposals to limit public speaking because of the length of meetings.

    Cllr Mike Howe said he was “horrified” when he read the recommendations on public speaking restrictions. He told the committee that public perception currently was “not good” and the council’s reputation had been tarnished by a “certain ex councillor.”

    He said he would be happy for the proposals to be revisited once the local plan was in place.

    Cllr Howe added that it was not acceptable to insist that people register before the agenda was finalised.

    Committee chairman, Cllr Helen Parr pointed out that other councils in Devon had more restrictive arrangements than EDDC did.

    But Cllr Howe replied that EDDC was “under scrutiny” and needed to be seen as “whiter than white.”

    Cllr Tony Howard said he didn’t like “the package” and would rather not have the document before him. He said the subject should be discussed before it came to committee in this way.  He added that he was “totally against” cutting public speaking.  He asked why all the applications had to be decided in one sitting.

    A senior planning officer replied that if there were more meetings there would be a bigger impact on officer time preparing agendas, and councillors would have to commit to more meetings.  He added that the number of applications was not a good indication of how long a meeting might take.

    Cllr Mike Allen said that there were only two meetings that had exceeded eight hours in length.

    He said that there the comments section on the planning section of the EDDC website was difficult for many people to navigate and this was a “myriad problem” for people to find their way through.

    Cllr Allen emphasised that the key to careful agenda management was a “bit of excellent chairmanship.”

    Cllr Allen described the recommendations as “inequitable, anti-democratic and premature.”  He proposed that the issue should be discussed properly after the local plan was finalised.

    Cllr Geoff Chamberlain said it wasn’t just public speaking that should be looked at. Any recommendations should also examine the way in which the committee itself operated.

    He said that although some applications had many members of the public speaking, the committee often took an equally long time to come to a decision. Members often spent a long time agreeing with each other, which was a “total and utter waste of time.” 

    “Sometimes I really despair,” he added.  It is unfair as we want to make good decisions, “but we just go round and round.”

    “We need to get to the nub of the issue more quickly.”

    Cllr Mark Williamson said he thought that the principle of the recommendation was meant to be inclusive. Most applications were “neither strengthened nor weakened by numbers of representations,” and to allow it to appear that the committee was influenced by the number of speakers was “a slippery slope,” he said.

    Committee vice-chairman, Cllr David Key, who appeared to be rather annoyed, said:  “ Well, dear, dear, dear, dear.”  He told the committee that those councillors against the recommendations had left a meeting early previously until there were only six councillors left to debate planning applications. 

    Cllr Key said he supported the principle of two speakers against, two in favour, plus the agent for the developer.

    He said there was “ample time” to register and thought that members of the public should “have the guts” to find a spokesperson, if not everyone could speak.

    Committee chairman, Cllr Helen Parr said she did not believe that the issues could not be covered by five or six speakers.

    Cllr Geoff Pook said he thought a suitable number should be about five speakers for and five against.

    Cllr Roger Giles was called to speak from the sidelines and said it was completely the wrong time to look at restricting public speaking and the recommendations could not be described as anything else.

    I was then called and said I was really pleased that the debate was going the way it was. I suggested that to help plan agendas it would acceptable to ask people to register in advance, as long as this wasn’t a requirement.  It was important that people weren’t prevented from speaking.

    Cllr Mike Allen didn’t like the idea that the agenda was being set up for the convenience of officers and repeated his view that the discussion should be deferred until after the local plan was agreed.

    Cllr David Key said he was “very offended” on behalf of the officers at Cllr Allen’s remark. He said that the committee wanted to make the changes to help councillors and the public. He added:  “We are the ones giving up our time to come here.”

    A vote, proposed by Cllr Mike Allen and seconded by Cllr Mike Howe, to defer the discussion on public speaking until after the local plan was finalised, was tied by six votes to six.

    Cllr Helen Parr used her casting vote to override the proposal, instead asking for an alternative.

    An amendment by Cllr Howe, proposing that a sub-committee was started as soon as possible to look at the length of agendas, was then supported by 10 votes to two.