3 minute rule thrown out at Somerset Council
The Constitution & Governance Committee is preparing a constitution for the new Somerset Council. These include setting out new rules for the consideration of planning applications. We have reported on this previously (https://leveller.live/2023/01/27/new-somerset-council-undemocratic). Those proposals include limiting public speakers objecting to planning applications to 3 minutes in total. Supporters of the application are also limited to 3minutes.
As we pointed out before this is absurd. Making sufficient legitimate planning points in 3 minutes is simply not possible. If there were 10 valid points to make, they would get 18 seconds each.
This has caused a degree of outrage and suggestions that the proposals are undemocratic and unnecessarily draconian. It was also suggested that it was hardly the sort of policy one might have expected from a LibDem administration.
We have been unable to find any other planning authority in England that restricts public speaking to a total of 3 minutes. That proposal has been retained and was presented again to the Committee this morning (14 February).
Taunton candidate intervenes
The surprise intervention was during Public Questions. Gideon Amos, the Lib Dem candidate for the constituency of Taunton spoke to the committee. He too objected to the 3 minute limit for public speakers on planning applications. As a LibDem candidate addressing a LibDem council this was interesting. Mr Amos appeared to take a view more traditionally associated with LibDem politics. He noted “Local residents may on occasion have better local knowledge than planners or highway authorities. I think it is really important for democratic process to allow speakers to object. It is all part of safe and secure decision making….. It is a matter of giving people a proper say. Councillors and local planning authorities have been so bound and gagged by central government, that the right of the public to speak is important.“
When councillors had a chance to have a say Mr Amos had supporters for his view in the room.
Shane Collins for the Greens asked what the reticence was to having more than 3 minutes for the public to speak. He had heard lots of reference to best practise but no reasons given for not allowing more public time.
The officers feel that written comments from the public were already included in an officer’s report and time is limited. Of course that does not cover the possibility of an officer not interpreting the member of the public’s objection correctly. Nor indeed the possibility that the objection was misinterpreted. Effectively the officers want the right to interpret with the member of the public having no right of reply. In short the officers were unable to give a convincing answer to Mr Collins point.
Cllr Ros Wyke, Executive member for development and assets, has a different view. In a statement she explained: “These proposals would actually remove hard and fast time limits on public speaking by giving Committee Chairs power to decide what’s right for each case. Three minutes would be the minimum entitlement for opponents and supporters alike, not the fixed upper limits regardless of complexity, we largely have today. That’s a big innovation for public access and should be welcomed. There is a balance to be struck because good planning decisions also benefit from people making their case clearly and succinctly and all written statements are also considered by Committees. We have looked at best practice in Somerset and further afield and will continue to listen and develop our approach.“
This is a hard conclusion to reach from the constitution as drafted. This states clearly “3 minutes for support (shared) and 3 minutes for object (shared)”. The words go on to say “At the Chair’s discretion in consultation with the legal advisor the time allowed may be increased.” The discretion of the Chair is therefore limited. The idea that the 3 minutes is a minimum, simply because the Chair has discretion to make it longer, is interesting.
Discretion not good enough
And the key here is any extension is “in consultation with the legal advisor.” If the limit is set at 3 minutes, it is going to be much harder for the Chair to give discretion, because of the need for it to be justified legally. It makes it necessarily harder for more than 3 minutes to be granted.
If the rule was 9 minutes (split into 3 speakers of 3 minutes) that would allow proper time for public speaking. The issue of Chair’s discretion would not be limited by legal interpretation. And the Chair could still be given discretion to make it longer.
Theo Butt-Philip, Chair of the Constitution & Governance Committee seems to have had a similar thought. He circulated papers suggesting a 9 minute allowance. The time to be shared with a maximum of 3 minutes for each speaker. With the Chair’s discretion to be kept in.
Strangely, having opened the floodgates, councillors now felt emboldened to ask for more. Having listened to the debate Cllr Butt-Philip amended his proposal to 15 minutes for objectors and 15 minutes for supporters. Again with a maximum of 3 minutes per speaker and Chair’s discretion.
This proposal was accepted unanimously by the committee. A triumph for public participation? Yes, arguably that is what it represents.
Hopefully this will mean , Parish Councillors.
Attending Planning Board meetings, will be treated different to members of the public
Quite why this proposal took two outings to address remains a mystery.
I can see why the officers might like to restrict public speaking at planning meetings (in the name of speedy and efficient meetings) but not why experienced councillors (many having served on planning committees) would go along with such a derisory and minimal limit of 3 minutes all objectors.
I would have thought the committee would have “smelt the strong coffee” from the first meeting about allowing just 3 minutes all objectors.
Well done The Leveller for picking up on this and for the CPRE staying resolute.
15 minutes allowing for 5 speakers at 3 minutes each is a reasonable compromise and, more acceptable than the initial proposal from the Chair, of just 9 minutes allowing for 3 speakers at 3 minutes each.
Mendip (and the new Somerset) need to prioritise the more controversial and significant planning applications first. If they did this and allowed parish councils to make decisions on smaller applications like garage conversions, extensions and tree felling they would free up time to debate the big issues.
Having experienced the three minute rule I can say that it certainly focuses the mind and argument, avoiding excessively long winded comments. However in my opinion 3 minutes is not long enough.
However, my biggest anger is the lack of a right to reply. If after a 3 minute presentation and subsequent discussion by the board members, it might be that a speaker feels that derogatory comments have been made or that the point made was missed or misunderstood and it seems perfectly fair to me to give speakers a short opportunity to comment further or reply so that it is clear that a message has been understood and that councillors know exactly how people feel. At the very least there ought to be a chance for councillors to ask questions of speakers for further clarification. Good communication is a two way process that starts with sending a message, receiving it, processing and then feeding back. It’s no surprise that Mendip Planning has a very poor reputation in this regard.
That is exactly the sort of policy I would expect from a Lib/dem administration and exactly the sort of restrictions on democracy we are used to seeing in South Somerset from the same people.