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The DoE has told North Cornwall DC members they risk being surcharged if they do not get their planning procedures ...
The DoE has told North Cornwall DC members they risk being surcharged if they do not get their planning procedures in order. The warning follows publication of the findings of a DoE inquiry which found the council failed to protect the countryside from sporadic development, disregarded government planning guidance, showed favouritism to people who were known to members, and used inadequate procedures at its planning meetings.

The inquiry, carried out by planning expert Audrey Lees, found planning permission could add around £50,000 to the value of a plot of land. Ms Lees found that when planning decisions were being made 'some councillors have favoured certain applicants, often local people, because of their personal circumstances rather than material planning considerations.

'Councillors must not favour groups such as long-standing local people or treat the planning system as a method of helping or rewarding them. 'Councillors should only sit on the planning committee if they abide by the National Code of Local Government Conduct'. Ms Lees found that in one year 13 planning permissions were obtained by members of the planning committee or their close relatives.

Although this was not illegal Ms Lees believed anyone on the committee who secured a large number of planning approvals or carried out development which was obviously inappropriate was in breach of the national code. The council's planning staff emerged virtually unscathed. Mr Curry conceded they could have been firmer on occasions, but stressed the difficulty for officers of trying to reverse the direction of council policy.

The inquiry revealed criticisms of remoteness and inaction levelled at the DoE's south west regional office. Ms Lees aimed six recommendations at the DoE, including improving its promotion of government planning policies and considering whether the code of conduct should include specific guidance to members of planning committees.

On Tuesday Local Government Minister David Curry met a delegation from the council and told them they had until the end of February to tell him how they were going to implement 58 recommendations in the report. 'I pointed out that if they did not put their house in order I would not hesitate to call in increasing volumes of planning applications', he said afterwards.

If this happened he would ask the district auditor to take action, which could lead to surcharging, he stressed. Mr Curry's enthusiasm for improvement waned somewhat when it came to criticisms of the DoE. 'As far as we can we will address these', he said. The council delegation told Mr Curry they would co-operate and were calling a special meeting on Monday to discuss the report.

Ken White, chairman of the independent-dominated council, told LGC the report was much harsher than he had expected. He believed North Cornwall had been singled out as a way of coercing other councils to fall into line. 'It is fairly obvious we are being made the scapegoats for everybody else', he said. 'We have not deliberately flouted the law or gone against policy, we have done what we believed we were elected to do. But we have got to toe the line'.

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