CONTROVERSIAL changes to planning procedure in South Gloucestershire have been approved.

The council say that the changes will make the system ‘more transparent’, by encouraging residents, Town and Parish Councils and other stakeholders to engage early in the process, as well as making it easier to see how decisions are made, by who and why.

Following a review of the current system, which has not been updated since the 1990’s, many aspects would be retained but the new approach would also reflect ‘best practice’ taken from other council areas.

The most straightforward planning applications received by the council will be delegated to council officers, who will be able to make a decision based on existing planning rules.

More impactful proposals will be considered by new all-party spatial planning, strategic sites and development management committees replacing the existing development control committees as of November.

Councillors can still escalate ‘smaller’ applications to committee if they believed the proposals have a significant impact to the area.

The spatial planning committee will also provide an opportunity for councillors to re-evaluate any decision taken by the other two committees if they resolve to ‘overturn’ recommendations by officers.

Cllr Colin Hunt, SGC cabinet member for planning, transportation and the strategic environment, said: “These changes simplify the system. Development proposals will be published and everyone will be able to see the process they will follow.

“By making the process more visible and transparent, applicants, residents, Town and Parish Councils and other stakeholders will be able to make better submissions – in favour of, or against a proposal – earlier in the process.

“That means, at whichever level decisions are made, all of the of relevant information and the ‘local knowledge’, which is often so critical to informed decision making, but which under current procedures often only emerges late in the day, can be taken into account.”

But while the constitutional amendments were passed during the full council meeting at Kingswood Civic Centre on Wednesday, it was not a unanimous decision, with opposition Liberal Democrat and Labour councillors speaking out over a number of issues, including limiting who can talk during site visits.

An amendment was put forward at the meeting by the Lib Dems, calling for a 12-week public consultation period, a motion that failed.

Lib Dem deputy leader Cllr Maggie Tyrrell, who represents Thornbury South and Alveston, said: “Because the public have not been consulted, I’m not sure many people will realise they are about to lose important planning rights.

“Under these rule changes, members of the public will be banned from attending and speaking at site inspections, as they currently can.

“Regular planning meetings at Thornbury will be scrapped, meaning that the planning process will be made less accessible for residents in the west of South Gloucestershire.

“Residents will feel that the deck is being stacked against them even further.”

Labour leader Cllr Pat Rooney: added: “It was clear from the meeting that many members of the public are opposed to these changes which will limit their opportunities for involvement in the planning decision process.

“I am disappointed that the ruling group will not allow more consultation as the public’s feedback would undoubtedly improve the process.”

Addressing the ruling Conservative group, Lib Dem Cllr Tony Davis, who represents Dodington said: “All we are saying is ‘give the public a say’.

“If you vote these changes through without consulting the public, your credibility with residents on planning issues will be out the window for good.”