Planning Meetings cancelled in South Somerset
South Somerset District Council has cancelled all planning meetings for January. Meetings in the first half of February have also been cancelled.
The action was taken by Chief Executive Alex Parmley and Leader Val Keitch. A spokesman told us they consulted with the four Area Committee Chairs before deciding. This is permitted under emergency powers granted under COVID 19 legislation.
But where does that leave planning in South Somerset? Apparently February meetings may also be cancelled. An SSDC told us that no major applications were due to be discussed at the January and February meetings.
A number of councillors and members of the public have cried foul. It has been suggested that the process is anti democratic. SSDC retort that their action is necessary to support the response to the pandemic. It is hard not to sympathise with the change in their priorities.
However we wondered what exactly SSDC staff would be doing to help. We asked specifically what members of the planning team would be diverted to doing. We also asked how many staff from planning would be doing this work. SSDC have not been able to answer the question directly. Instead their spokesman told us “The work on providing grants and vaccinations support is a dynamic and fast-changing situation in terms of requirements and staffing requests from partners so it will not be possible to provide a running commentary on specific staff numbers. Staff from all directorates – support services, strategy & commissioning, service delivery and commercial services & income generation are all involved. We will not let these arrangements last any longer than we need to and the priority we are giving to the vaccine is to support protecting lives and helping our county get back to some normality as soon as possible.“
Val Keitch said in a statement “We have pledged to do all we can to support our communities and businesses throughout the Coronavirus pandemic. The new lockdown will place additional demands on all of us in terms of supporting vulnerable members of our community and significant additional business grants to distribute which we will aim to get to businesses as rapidly as possible. “Details of these will be made available as soon as we have received confirmation from the Government.” So given the grants cannot yet be processed, presumably most of the work will be on vaccination support for now.
SSDC tell us a significant effort is going into the vaccination work. “SSDC has committed to supporting the vaccination programme in any way it can with more than 80 staff already involved or about to be redeployed to this work across Somerset, and we expect this figure to grow. This includes helping schedule vaccination appointments, administration of vaccination sites, marshalling and more.”
The one question that remains is this. Given that the absolute priority is COVID response, why are other meetings going ahead? So far Scrutiny and District Executive meetings have gone ahead. A full council meeting is still scheduled for the end of the month.
We were just finalising this piece when we received some new information. It appears that although formal meetings will not go ahead, informal ones will. An Area East meeting has been arranged for tomorrow. However it is by invitation only. Some members will be invited and select members of the public. And at least one application due for consideration does appear to be substantial, if not “major”. It concerns an application for a 47 acre solar farm in Queen Camel. It has not attracted a huge amount of response but objections have been lodged by 3 members of the public and the CPRE. Nevertheless, it is the sort of application which would usually be expected to attract public interest.