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A Fort William councillor has claimed that possibly hundreds of planning decisions, which could affect the lives of Lochaber residents for years to come, are being taken in ‘secret’, with local councillors prevented from scrutinising them.
The allegation from Lochaber Area Committee chairman Councillor Andrew Baxter (Fort William and Ardnamurchan) refers to Highland Council’s temporary suspension of the current scheme of delegation for dealing with planning applications during the coronavirus crisis.
The council’s revisions to the Scheme of Delegation were agreed by the Scottish Government and essentially mean that currently it only requires the chairman of the relevant committee to agree or not agree with a planning officer’s recommendation, in order to determine applications.
If at the consultation with the chairman there is no agreement on the officer recommendation, that particular application will be deferred until planning application committees restart or further arrangements are put in place.
However, Mr Baxter said that while Aberdeenshire Council managed to have a full council meeting virtually, Highland Council has continued with its planning meetings being held, in effect, in secret with only one councillor present.
‘Highland councillors will be prevented, until the end of June, from scrutinising the dozens, maybe hundreds, of decisions that will affect our lives for years,’ he added.
‘My concerns are that officers and senior councillors are hiding behind emergency powers to effectively end any democratic scrutiny for the time being.
‘There are important and controversial planning applications that are going to be decided behind closed doors, with one councillor present. There is no local knowledge or representation of local views in this process.
‘Until councillors, like me, started asking questions and kicking up a fuss, we weren’t even going to be told what applications were due to be discussed at these closed meetings.
‘Because of my pressure that has changed and I was able to comment and seek deferral of a number of applications until the planning committee can meet.
‘This goes way beyond the planning process, as decisions that will affect the Highlands for years are being made by a select group of councillors. All others councillors are in the dark.
‘If Westminster can conduct PMQs [Prime Minister’s Questions] remotely surely Highland Council can continue with some public scrutiny.’
For it’s part, the council says it has a statutory duty to determine applications that are submitted to it and that it is not able to indefinitely hold off determining applications as this would would impact on employment, investment and public confidence, and create economic uncertainty.
Meanwhile, Councillor Allan Henderson (Caol and Mallaig), a vice-convener of the Inverness-headquartered local authority, told the Lochaber Times the council will be ‘severely affected’ when the region emerges from this crisis.
The council faces a budget gap of more than £80million in the current financial year due to the impact of the virus, which includes a 63 per cent slump in planning income alone thanks to a 52 per cent drop in planning applications and a 50 per cent drop in building standards applications in comparison to the same five-week period last year.
Mr Henderson told us: ‘The council will focus on stimulating tourism and engaging with the business sectors in the coming months since it is obvious that everything will not restart from where it previously operated, if social distancing is to continue.
‘However, borrowing does have an impact on the day-to-day budget so it is almost certain that services that have been taken for granted will cease.’