PLANNING: He was right to declare an interest

The recent (South Holland District Council) planning committee decision to approve a permanent site for the gypsy and traveller community, has led to some very unfair criticism of one particular committee member.

Coun Anthony Casson declared an interest when the item was presented at committee, stating that he would not be participating in the debate, nor vote on any recommendations.

His declaration was based on the fact that he had, on January 17, submitted a number of comments on the planning application, H16-1003-13, via the South Holland District Council website.

Two of the seven comments made were: “I wish to strongly object to this application for gypsy and traveller site” and “I hope this application will be refused”.

Although his comments were recorded as from a resident and not a councillor, they leave little room for doubt that, even before reading any report, or hearing any debate, Coun Casson had set his mind against the proposal for a permanent gypsy and traveller site, in the proposed location.

He was absolutely right to declare an interest at the meeting and exclude himself from the determination. Had he done otherwise and the application subsequently been refused, a judicial review in the High Court could well have followed. He could also have found himself under investigation for breaching the council’s Code of Conduct.

He has been further criticised, by certain individuals, for not seeking a substitute to take his place on the committee.

Those pointing the finger have overlooked one crucial fact, he is not the one who appoints a substitute. The group whip holds a list of names of those with planning committee training and he is the only person who can formally nominate a named substitute.

Had Coun Casson asked the whip to appoint a particular person, he would have been very firmly challenged on his motives for doing so.

Under these circumstances, he seems to have chosen the next best option – neutralising his vote. By retaining his place on the committee, he ensured that his vote did not go in favour of the application.

The planning committee is arguably the most challenging for any councillor to serve on. Unlike the majority of committees, members must always give the planning policies of the council greater weight than public opinion, whether that opinion be for or, more likely, against the proposal.

Refusals, based on the strength of public opinion and not the planning policies, can lead to costly planning appeals and, on occasion, highly expensive and protracted legal proceedings.

An elected member will always seek to support the views of those living in the ward they represent. However, when serving on the planning committee, they have to accept their primary duty is to act in the best interests of South Holland as a whole.

Roger Gambba-Jones

South Holland District Council planning committee chairman