Opposition councillors slam ‘dangerous’ moves to overhaul decision-making for major development plans

Opposition councillors in Sunderland have hit out over a “dangerous” move to replace two planning committees with a single decision-making body.

By Nic Marko
Friday, 20th May 2022, 3:33 pm

Decisions on the most important developments in Wearside are currently split between two existing planning and highways committees, covering the eastern and western halves of the city.

However, this week’s annual meeting and mayor making at Sunderland City Council saw proposals backed for the two panels to be merged.

This will create a single committee responsible for all citywide planning and highways related decisions, recommendations or actions not delegated to officers in the local authority’s planning department.

City Hall, Sunderland

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The new committee will consist of 10 members and meet on a monthly cycle.

Graeme Miller, leader of the city council, argued the move will free up more councillors to speak on behalf of ward residents and raise any issues linked to applications.

He said: “Councillors are not precluded from being involved in planning, actually this enhances scrutiny because if councillors wish to talk on behalf of their residents they can do so.

Sunderland Council leader Graeme Miller.

“I’ve tried to keep it to a tight group of councillors who I hope are interested in planning because it’s a very serious business, planning has delivered great change in this city and we will continue to do so.”

Council reports also claimed the single committee will help improve the “efficiency and effectiveness” of decision-making and allow them to “fulfil the city-wide, strategic aims and aspirations”.

But opposition councillors have slammed the move, with Conservative councillor James Doyle arguing it was “disappointing and worrying in equal measure” and done without consultation with existing planning councillors.

Tory group leader Cllr Antony Mullen said the proposals will create “further distrust” in the council, while noting existing planning and highways east committee meetings already last several hours.

He added: “The proposal to merge the two planning committees is dangerous.

“This is just the latest of several attempts over recent years to limit scrutiny, to prevent opposition and to allow the executive to get its own way.”

Fellow Conservative Michael Dixon called the timing of the proposals “ironic”, after describing the east planning body last year as one of the “best” committees he has sat on.

The long-serving member of planning committee said there was “a lot of debate, scrutiny and questions asked”.

He added: “I think it’s one of the worst decisions I’ve ever come across in my time as a councillor, it sends out a dreadful message to the public.

“We’re talking about planning for the city here, not party politics.”

Wearside Liberal Democrat leader Cllr Niall Hodson called the changes “extremely drastic” and “not to the benefit of applicants and the public.”

However City Council leader Cllr Miller said councillors have previously found the previous set-up “very awkward”, due rules requiring them to avoid the appearance of predetermination on any application they may be called to rule on.

He addedd this has left some representative “shackled” and prevented from speaking on behalf of ward residents.

Cllr Miller, who is to be vice chair of the new single committee, added: “This change does not stop councillors being involved in planning.

“It frees councillors up to talk on behalf of their residents more because more of them are not on planning.”