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5th November 2002
Minutes of the Special Meeting of the Council held in the Council Chamber, Council Offices, 47 Derry Road, Strabane on Tuesday 5 November 2002 at 7.30 p.m.
Present: In the Chair:- Councillor McMenamin Other Members:- Councillors I Barr, A Bell, J Donnell, T McBride, C McGill, B McMahon, B McNamee, J McNulty Total = 9 In Attendance:- Clerk & Chief Executive Head of Culture, Arts & Leisure Administrative Assistant Apologies: Councillors A Bresland, D Breslin, D Hussey
The Chairman reported that Council would receive 3 presentations at the meeting with each presentation lasting approximately 30 minutes.
The Chairman welcomed Mr Brian Hughes to the meeting.
1. Presentation by Mr Brian Hughes, Divisional Planning Manager
Mr Brian Hughes referred to his letter to the Chief Executive of 10 October in which he had offered to come along and explain his concerns to Council. He said that he was seeking the help of Council in relation to the number of requests for office meetings. He had inherited the procedure of office meetings from his predecessor who he had spoken to in this regard. He said that the arrangement of referrals to the Planning Manager should be on the basis of exceptional cases as opposed to automatic referrals if the applications had been refused on the planning schedule list. Mr Hughes said that the number of office meetings had been increasing every year and gave the following statistics. In 2000 there had been 25 requests for office meetings, in 2001 40 requests and to date in 2002 there had been 70 requests. Mr Hughes said that Strabane was the smallest district in terms of planning applications and he also had another four districts within his remit. He said that he dealt with 4,800 planning applications last year and although the types of applications were similar, the Councils did not operate similar arrangements. Omagh worked similarly to Strabane but did not have as many office meetings. Fermanagh never asked for office meetings and Dungannon and Cookstown fairly rarely. Mr Hughes said that the other Councils were now aware that Strabane was being treated differently and they were all now requesting the same treatment. He said that this would not be tenable, as it was very difficult to cope with the current workload.
Mr Hughes said that he now questioned how meaningful the consultation process was. He said that he was very conscious of the Council’s input and was aware of the time and resources devoted to planning applications. He also acknowledged Councillors’ needs to represent their voters. Mr Hughes said that he was not trying to dodge the main issues and wondered if it was possible to come to some agreement to reduce the demands on the Planning department. He reported that he had taken a line with other Councils that he would not be able to accommodate an increase in demands for office meetings. Mr Hughes said that the normal procedure in other Councils would be for one deferral and then back to Council either to agree or refer to the Management Board.
Mr Hughes said that he did not want to deprive Councillors of putting their points of view to him but said that they needed to filter out some of the office meetings and concentrate on the major ones. However, he did realise that all cases were important to Councillors.
Mr Hughes suggested that an application could be referred back to the Manager for reconsideration without the need for an office meeting and written comments could be included as to why the outcome of site meeting had been unsatisfactory. He felt that the office meetings currently were more like rehearsals of what had gone at the site meetings and were of little value. Mr Hughes felt that the proposed new arrangement had some merit in that it would enable Councillors to have access to senior staff and if they were still not satisfied, they could refer the case to the Management Board. He said that he did not want to lay down the law but that office meetings were getting to proportions where the Planning department could not deal with them.
The Chairman thanked Mr Hughes and asked for Councillors’ questions and comments.
Councillor Barr said that he would repeat what he had said at a Council meeting. He said that he did not realise that there would be a problem in Council seeking meetings with the Planning department until it was drawn to his attention. He now acknowledged how the number of meetings had multiplied and recognised the potential for even a further increase in meetings. He also acknowledged that the Planning department had 5 Councils to deal with. Councillor Barr recalled that during his term on Council that the first few years it had been routine to refer applications to the planning directorate after a site meeting but that meetings with the Divisional Planning Office were rare. He said that there had not been a conscious decision taken to go down that route and that it was more of a routine that Council had fallen into. He said it would be beneficial to reach an amicable agreement and he asked Mr Hughes if he felt that there was merit in his proposal in terms of a valuable route for Council.
Mr Hughes said that he believed there was merit in the proposed new arrangement. He said that another Council already used that system and he had no difficulty with cases being referred to the Management Board. He felt that it could be used as a good check for the service of the Planning department. He noted that the only check at present was the planning appeals procedure.
He outlined the procedure of discussing planning applications. He said that all applications were discussed at group meetings and that when Mr McIvor reported to Council he was relaying the group’s opinions. He confirmed that Mr McIvor also reported to that group following site meetings. Mr Hughes informed Council that any applications referred back by Council to senior management are also considered by group discussion. Mr Hughes acknowledged that he would often have already seen many of the cases and been involved in the decision making process.
Councillor McGill welcomed Mr Hughes to the meeting. Councillor McGill queried the procedure of Council sending written comments. Mr Hughes said that he did not want to curtail Council’s input and felt it was important to know Council’s views on applications. He said that what he was offering was that, following a site meeting if Council forcibly disagreed with the judgement, they could send their comments in writing to the divisional management and have the application reassessed by Mr Hughes.
Councillor McGill said that she had discussed the matters she wanted to raise at the meeting with the Chair of the Environment Committee, Councillor McHugh and she had his support. She acknowledged Mr Hughes concerns about the number of office meetings and the fact that they placed severe demands on his time. She said that, as a Glenelly Councillor, she represented rural residents who also had concerns and who would like to see communication improved between the Planning Service and the applicant. Councillor McGill said that the residents felt that the Planning Service should inform the applicant in advance of the date and time of the very first site visit. They felt that this would give applicant and/or the agent an opportunity to be there to clearly identify the site and be part of the discussion from the outset. She said that getting planning permission in Glenelly was a major issue and being turned down was very disappointing. She said that the whole process needed to be more transparent and more satisfactory for all the parties concerned.
Mr Hughes said that, as a service, they had tried to make it transparent. Through modernising the Planning Service, files were available for the public to view whenever the Officer had visited the site and written up his/her views. Members of the public could make an appointment to inspect the file and obtain copies of parts of the file. Mr Hughes said that he did not feel that it would be necessary to inform the applicant of the date and time of the Officer’s first site visit if the application was going to be approved. He said that, in the case of a refusal, the applicant and/or the agent did have an opportunity to attend a site meeting, which is at the behest of the Council. He advised that the Planning Service did not invite anyone to site meetings and they considered that the responsibility of the Council. He confirmed that his staff undertook initial site visits as and when they got the time but refusals were dated and a time given for a site meeting.
Councillor McGill said that the applicant did not know whether the site was going to be approved or refused and they would like to be there at the start of the process. Mr Hughes said that surely it was better that an Officer considered the site and approved it. However, if there was a refusal, then the applicant could get involved. He felt that this saved time when it was not necessary to be discussed at the early stages.
Councillor Bell welcomed Mr Hughes to the meeting and said that she rarely asked for office meetings. She raised concerns over discrepancies when objections were given and the application was subsequently passed and other applications where there had not been any objections and the application was subsequently refused. Councillor Bell made reference to a particular case but the Chairman said that Mr Hughes would probably not be up to date with that particular case.
Mr Hughes said that he believed he had only met Councillor Bell on one occasion. He said that he was unaware about which case she had referred and therefore was unable to comment. He said that they did not pretend to say that the Planning Service got everything right.
He acknowledged that there had been a backlog of applications but advised the meeting that he had that day arranged some office meetings. He reported that there had been a request for 15 office meetings and he had had to allocate some of the meetings to senior staff and Councillors would be informed of these site meetings soon.
Councillor Donnell thanked Mr Hughes for all the times they had met in Omagh. He said that some of the meetings had been successful. He added that, as a rural Councillor, he had concerns that farmers’ sons were being turned down at the first stage and if the avenue of meetings in Omagh was closed they would have to go elsewhere which would slow the process down. He appreciated the huge number of meetings but said that Councillors were also put under pressure from applicants and architects. He said that it was not Councillors who wanted these meetings and they attended them at their own expense. The Chairman agreed that it should be remembered that Councillors incurred expenses to attend meetings.
Mr Hughes said that he was in no way blaming Councillors and he understood that they were under pressure from voters. However he said that he would now have to deal with all Councils in the same way. He did not see how anyone would be disadvantaged by written submissions to him instead of face to face meetings as he felt that personalities did not affect applications. He also said that going to the Management Board would not disadvantage applicants and felt that written points of view would be a more accurate way for Council to put their argument. He also said that he could have the opportunity to look at more sites, which would be beneficial. He asked Council to reflect on this and said he was not demanding an answer at the meeting.
Following a question from Councillor Donnell, Mr Hughes said that they dealt with 3,500 applications in 1996 and were currently dealing with 5,000 applications and they had not had a pro rata increase in staff. He said that there had been a surge in applications although the logistics were the same. It did not prevent Councillors from putting their case to senior management.
Following a comment from Councillor Donnell, Mr Hughes said that his door would not be closed and it would be beneficial to have a working arrangement. He said that it would still be useful to have written details. He appreciated that there was always going to be information that arose from site meetings and there may be information of a sensitive nature. He reiterated that he was not refusing to speak to Councillors. He hoped that the system would be used judiciously by Councillors and that the majority of cases would include written submissions in order to help him decide whether a decision was reasonable.
Councillor McBride apologised for being late. He said that the increase in applications had a big bearing on the number of office meetings. He personally felt that part of the problem was caused by understaffing in the Planning office. He was aware that some staff had left and the positions had not been replaced and wondered if Council was suffering because of this. Councillor McBride said that the majority of applications came from rural areas and over the last 4 or 5 years the rural Councillors have had huge geographical areas to cover. He said that it was delightful to be living in these areas but it caused planning difficulties, as more people wanted to build new houses. Councillor McBride hoped that Council would not lose the valuable background to applications. He said that there had been occasions when he could not believe some of the decisions and thought that office meetings were able to change the direction of a decision. He said that Mr Hughes had always been regarded as the final arbiter and Councillors felt that good sense would prevail at an office meeting. He said that office meetings had brought about substantial success and he felt that if Council lost that its, role would be diminished. He said that it was not about votes for Councillors and that planning applications was one area that could unite all parties. He hoped that Councillors did not lose that valuable next step. He wondered if the proposed written submissions came from Councillors or Officers and felt it was worth noting that perhaps not all Councillors were able to communicate in writing as well as they would do face to face.
Mr Hughes said that they could never have enough staff and regularly made a plea to headquarters. He said that they had more staff in recent years however, there was only one of him and there was only so much one person could do. He believed that the reality was that the more applications that were referred the less meaningful it became. Mr Hughes clarified that the Planning Service consulted the Council and it did not matter who provided the written submissions, they would be taken as received from the Council as a body.
Mr Hughes outlined that his staff had to answer a rigorous series of questions at the group meetings and he said that there was a safeguard in that an experienced Officer would visit the site and report back. He said this process would sift out a lot of the mistakes although the staff was well assessed in the context of policy. He agreed that it was not an exact science and felt that, in his experience, by the time the application had reached him, there was not much room for manoeuvre. He reiterated that his door was not closed but asked Council to further discuss the matter and consider whether the second referral could be dealt with in written form but if more information was found perhaps we could arrange an office meeting. He stressed that the current arrangement could not continue.
Councillor McBride said that he hoped that the professional respect they had for each other remained. He said that Council would also need to see if they had the manpower to deal with written submissions. He felt that it would be hard for senior officials to reverse a decision when it had already been made and he felt that a more experienced official would give the benefit of the doubt.
Councillor McGill said that rural Councillors had a very good idea of the pressure that applicants felt when their applications had been refused and she urged Mr Hughes to consider communicating with the applicant as soon as possible and inform them about the initial site visit.
Mr Hughes said that he would consider it and would discuss the matter with his staff although he remained of the view that he was more concerned that the applications, which had been refused, were being dealt with.
He again commented on the group meetings held in connection with applications, which he said could last 2-3 days. He added that all staff had to know their facts and be aware of planning policies. He said that they do not relish undertaking the appeals procedure and senior staff were not reluctant to overturn younger staff’s views.
The Chairman thanked Mr Hughes for attending the meeting and listening to Councillors comments with a sympathetic ear. He added that Councillors had found that there had been a degree of success with office meetings in Omagh, particularly at times when other Officers who were relatively new had erred on the side of caution. The Chairman felt that Mr McIvor had always carried out his work with professionalism.
Mr Hughes thanked Council and said that he was putting himself in Council’s hands and said that he did not want to disenfranchise anyone from giving their opinions. Mr Hughes left the meeting.
The Chairman advised that the meeting should go into committee and stressed the time limit of 30 minutes. The Chief Executive (CE) said that, as there were two organisations involved there would be commercial sensitivities and to be fair to both groups the meeting should be in committee.
On the proposal of Councillor McMahon, seconded by Councillor Donnell, the meeting went “into committee”.
On the proposal of Councillor McMahon, seconded by Councillor Barr the meeting went “out of committee”.
3. Broadband Telecommunications Tenders
The CE reported that two valid tenders had been received for the Broadband Feasibility Study, which had been assessed by the steering committee. The recommendation was to award Western Connect the contract to carry out the feasibility study. Following a question from Councillor Barr, the CE said that there would be no input from the Chamber of Commerce at this stage. He added that it was a feasibility study for the district and it would have a huge impact but would only work if there were enough users.
Following a question from Councillor McNulty, the CE confirmed that local groups would be consulted but the terms of reference would be more comprehensive. It was important to ensure that the correct method for broadband was used for the town.
On the proposal of Councillor Barr, seconded by Councillor McMenamin, this was agreed.
4. CIPFA Training Seminar for Board Members
The CE stressed the importance of this seminar and reported that Councillors were asked to forward their names to the Business Manager as soon as possible for the training seminar to be held on 21 November. He added that Officers would also be in attendance. Councillor McNulty confirmed his attendance and Councillor McMahon said he would be unable to attend.
Councillor Barr felt that Councillors’ main concern would be the liability of sitting as Directors on other bodies. The CE said that he would ensure that the seminar organisers would be aware of Members’ concerns.
5. Conference – ‘Mayors for Peace Forum’ 16 January 2003
On the proposal of Councillor McMahon, seconded by Councillor McNulty, it was agreed to mark this conference as read.
6. Christmas Illuminations 2002
Councillor Barr asked if it was a requirement for the Chamber of Commerce to give pound for pound. The Head of Culture, Arts & Leisure (HCAL) confirmed this and said there was the possibility of the grant aid figure being somewhat reduced depending on the overall programme costs.
Councillor Barr said that some traders exploited the sale of novelties on the day and he felt that Council should either try and prevent them from trading or charge them. The Chairman appreciated these comments but felt that these traders arrived unannounced and it would be difficult to stop them from trading. Councillor Barr felt that the Licensing Officer could be involved in this matter.
On the proposal of Councillor Barr, seconded by Councillor McMenamin, this was agreed.
7. Mitchell Park – Pitch Booking Policy
The HCAL said that as there were no Castlederg Councillors present, she would discuss this issue with them at a meeting later in the week and would seek retrospective ratification from Council.
9. Culture, Arts & Leisure Committee Meeting, 25 November 2002
The CE reported that the Culture, Arts & Leisure Committee meeting on 25 November would be cancelled and it was recommended that the next meeting would be held on 10 December, to follow the meeting of the Economic Development Committee with the reports to be kept as short as possible. Councillor Barr suggested that contact should be made with the Chairs of each Committee.
The Chairman asked that the laser be returned to Strabane for the switching on of the lights.
11. Council Recognition
Councillor Barr reported that the Strabane depot for the ambulance service had approached him concerning local ambulance personnel being recognised for their long service. He recalled that similar recognition had been given in the Castlederg area in the past.
Councillor Barr asked that a Council reception be given for Dr Quigley’s practice, which had recently received a QPA award and was only the second medical practice in Northern Ireland to receive such an award. On the proposal of Councillor Barr, seconded by Councillor Bell, the above recognitions were agreed.
The meeting concluded at 9.55 p.m.
DATED this 5 NOVEMBER 2002
SIGNED ____________________ Clerk & Chief Executive
DATED this 9 DECEMBER 2002
SIGNED ____________________ Chairman of the Council