Council defends planning stance amid accusation of an 'unprecedented removal of democratic powers’ in Central Bedfordshire

A local authority in Bedfordshire is denying its chief executive will make planning decisions on his judgment alone during the coronavirus crisis.

Councils have to abide by a statutory time limit to make a ruling on every planning application they receive.

The impact of the current lockdown has caused chaos in aspects of local government which councils have been battling to resolve.

Independent Central Bedfordshire councillors are concerned the virus is being used as an excuse to suspend democratic process.

Planning stock

CBC’s chief executive, Richard Carr has decided to invoke so-called emergency powers to allow him to make planning decisions himself, according to Independent Potton councillor Adam Zerny.

Cllr Zerny posted on social media that this temporary arrangement would be instead of any plans being considered by a committee of 13 democratically elected councillors – meetings the public could attend and make representations.

Cllr Zerny said: “When COVID-19 broke out, CBC recognised it could no longer hold these meetings face-to-face.

“This doesn’t present a major problem to CBC as few planning decisions are time critical and only about six per month are decided by the development management committee anyway.”

Councillor Zerny said he urged the council to call a halt to all planning applications, but it refused.

Councillors were told last month ahead of a committee meeting online that CBC’s chief executive would use emergency powers to decide applications.

“I opposed the use of these special powers, as did the other Independent councillors on the call, but no vote was taken,” added councillor Zerny.

In a letter to Mr Carr, he described the changes as “an unprecedented removal of democratic powers”.

Despite sending three further emails, the chief executive has not replied to his questions, Cllr Zerny said.

CBC claims it is not ready to conduct virtual meetings, despite many other local authorities, including parish and town councils, holding them.

“The council has not even confirmed to all councillors which planning applications will be involved,” added Cllr Zerny.

“It seems increasingly likely there will be no scrutiny of these decisions by the public or the vast majority of councillors.”

In a statement, a CBC spokesman said: “We continue to operate a functioning planning system, as far and as safely as we possibly can in the current circumstances, to help support the local economy and livelihoods.

“We are trialling virtual committee meetings from next week.

“But, following Government and legal advice, we have put in place a purely interim measure as a contingency.

“This is that the chief executive might consider a number of planning applications, which would normally be determined by the development management committee on April 29.

“He would not arrive at any decision in isolation,” added the spokesman.

“These applications will be considered with the benefit of a recommendation by a three-member panel of the planning committee, with input from local ward councillors.”