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  • The Rother Alliance

Our successful reforms to planning

An update on what’s happened in Planning since May last year, written by Cllr Jonathan Vine-Hall, Chairman of Rother Planning Committee and Lead Member for Strategy and Planning.

Having taken over the Chair of Planning and lead role in Planning Strategy last May, after being elected as an independent member, I wanted to find ways to make our planning more open and more accessible both internally and externally in conjunction with he head of Planning.

After the first Planning Meeting we had a ‘speed dating session’ between the officers and members of the Planning Committee. This was the first time several planning officers and administrative officers, many of whom are involved in backroom functions, had met members of the Committee. It was a brilliant success which opened up relationships and gave a sense of a mutual purpose between officers and members many of whom had never met. A real achievement for the Rother Alliance in getting officers and members working together.

I also wanted to make the Planning Committee more accessible to members of the public and representatives of Town and Parish Councils so my second task was to change the process for public speaking at planning meetings. This took some months as the process is embedded in the Council’s constitution which means any change has to go through 4 committees!

Persistence paid off and now the public and members of Town and Parish Councils can gain access to speaking at the Planning Committee much more easily. There were concerns this would add significant time to meetings. This has not been the case but it has given members of the public easy access to the Committee and a real voice at the Committee.

Rother now has perhaps the best democratic scheme for speaking at planning compared to all the authorities across the South East in terms of who can speak, the number of people who can speak and the ease of registering to speak. A real achievement for Rother Officers and for the Rother Alliance.

I also wanted to make sure that our Committee met the highest standards. This involved several approaches. The first was to ensure the highest level of probity ensuring there was no discussion about the merits of a planning application between members before the Planning Committee. Whilst members do avoid doing this it can sometimes be easy for some members to slip into discussions when on site visits. I have taken a tough line on this which has sometimes not been appreciated by all of my peers but I consider critical in achieving the highest standards of best practice . The Alliance seeks to bring the highest standards to Rother.

In January I launched the first ever for Rother (and I suspect most authorities) self assessment for the Planning Committee where members assessed their own performance and the overall performance of the Committee and suggesting improvements that could be made. This is common practice in the Charity sector but not in local government and is an appropriate thing to do as one way for the Committee to reflect on where it needs to improve itself, again a first for Rother and the Rother Alliance.

Whilst officers have provided a good range of training it has become apparent that it’s not always possible for everyone to attend every training session. Time constraints also means that some training on areas that would be useful have not been able to take place (not helped by the Covid crisis). Going forward we are now looking to see if we can work with either another authority or the Planning Advisory Service to develop a much more accessible suite of on-line training modules that members can access more conveniently. In doing this we will be taking Rother to a leading position in the country. This will take some time to develop but will again be a first for Rother and a significant achievement for the Rother Alliance in improving the professional development of members and significantly improving our standards of decision making and ensuring training is more accessible. In the meantime I have opened up all the Rother planning training sessions to members of Town and Parishes at no cost to help improve decision making and to improve relationships and openness across Rother.

As an alliance we have been trying to get our committee meetings live streamed for the past year to really improve accessibility to Council meetings. When I saw what other local authorities were doing during the recent lockdown I pushed hard to get the planning committee both to do virtual planning meetings and also have them live streamed. The first of these happened on the 28th of May having had two practice meetings in the two weeks before to work through any technical and procedural issues which might arise. I am pleased to say the meeting went well with only a few minor technical hitches and being the first ever live streamed planning meeting for Rother. Another first for the Rother Alliance. The 140 plus views on the live stream reached considerably more residents and interested viewers than the relatively small viewing gallery in the chamber at the Town Hall. Something we can be very proud of!

Looking at our Local Plan which is one of the corner stones of Rother’s planning documents we are now moving into its first update. Very soon members will receive a questionnaire which I have initiated to ensure all members, Parishes and Town councils and other key groups have the opportunity to express their views at the very earliest stage. Whilst there are always limitations set by government on what we can and can’t do this early engagement will allow all those with an interest to have their input considered before the process starts. Once again a first introduced by the Rother Alliance.

Cllr Jonathan Vine-Hall

Chairman of Planning and Lead Member for Strategy and Planning

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Working together works.


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