CONTROVERSIAL changes to planning procedure in South Gloucestershire have come under fire, with opposing councillors claiming the move undermines local democracy.

Proposals being put forward by South Gloucestershire Council’s Conservative cabinet to next week’s AGM will see the two development committees be replaced by one that will represent the whole authority, with no more meetings in Thornbury, reducing the number of councillors involved in decision making by around 30 per cent.

In next May’s election, South Gloucestershire ward boundaries will be changing, with the number of councillors being reduced from 70 to 61.

Opposition leaders in the Liberal Democrat and Labour groups have attacked the plans, claiming that councillors no longer have the ability to request site inspections for their wards or have the right to refer contentious planning decisions to council meetings, and that residents could no longer attend site inspections.

Council leader Cllr Matthew Riddle responded by branding the criticisms “cheap, hypocritical, and opportunistic” adding that the planning system was “a relic from a by-gone era, looking very similar to when the council was formed in 1996.

Incoming South Gloucestershire Lib Dem, Cllr Claire Young, said: “This is a body blow to local residents’ rights to stand up to unsuitable planning applications in their communities.

“Planning rules mean the deck is already heavily stacked in favour of powerful developers and now the Conservatives are tying the hands of local councillors and residents even more.”

Cllr Dave Hockey, the group’s lead member of South Gloucestershire’s development control committee that met in Thornbury, added that the meetings allow residents in the west of South Gloucestershire to more easily attend, and by “insisting all meetings take place at Kingswood”, the Conservatives were “putting an extra barrier in the way of local residents who wish to speak on planning applications”.

“The Conservatives claim to be in favour of localism, but these changes suggest otherwise.”

Labour group leader Cllr Pat Rooney said they were “particularly angry” that the opposition parties had not been consulted on the change.

“This is a further example of the culture of concealment at South Gloucestershire Council,” she said. “It signals the growing contempt that the ruling Tories have for the other political parties.

“I would have been perfectly happy to enter a discussion about reforming our planning processes and can understand some of the arguments for it, but the Tories did not see fit to ask us.

“And to add insult to injury, the report falsely claims that the proposals have been developed in consultation with the political group leaders. This is simply not true.

“South Gloucestershire used to pride itself on the mature and constructive way in which it conducted its politics.

“Sadly, finding out about such a fundamental change without warning shows that the Conservatives have turned their backs on that culture and have replaced it with one of secrecy and arrogance.”

The Conservative group responded to the claims by saying that the new system would help ensure the council can defend decision making, saying “it is no good refusing planning permission for applications which are going to be overturned on appeal, with costs awarded against the council for unreasonable behaviour”.

In the last year alone almost £966,000 has been spent by the council fighting appeals and paying out costs.

Council leader Cllr Matthew Riddle said: “We have spent an eye-watering amount of taxpayers’ money fighting planning appeals. This is money better spent looking after our vulnerable, tackling antisocial behaviour, or filling potholes, as many of our residents would agree.

“We have an outdated system and we are proposing much needed change to bring more fairness and better decision making into the planning system, as well as finding a way to avoid this enormous financial cost.

“Many of my colleagues’ criticisms have been cheap, hypocritical and opportunistic – similar systems operate now in Labour controlled-Bristol and operated in B&NES under Liberal Democrat control, and nobody from South Gloucestershire ever decried these as undemocratic. I am gravely disappointed if they can’t think of better ways to spend a million pounds serving the community.”