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Philip Evans


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SIDMOUTH: Plans to ‘restrict free speech’ voted through

Thursday, 31 July 2014

DISTRICT councillors have voted through measures to change the way members of the public have their say on major planning applications, despite efforts by local members to reverse the proposals. The changes, approved by councillors at a meeting at Knowle in Sidmouth last week, will restrict the number of people allowed to speak on large applications to five, and they must now register in advance of meetings to air their views. Those backing the plans – which will be introduced on a year-long trial period - argue the changes will help to speed up the planning process. But a group of councillors led by Claire Wright – also a county councillor for Sidmouth - spoke out against the proposals. She claimed the measures would stifle democracy at a time when numerous contentious planning applications are being submitted in East Devon. Speaking at the meeting, Cllr Wright said the proposals were “draconian”. She added: “Most people’s view is that the system is not abused and works well. In fact, many of us believe that the main time is being taken up by the committee members themselves. “This is the most worrying time ever for East Devon residents – Ottery, for example, is set to grow by a quarter in just a few years - and we should not be restricting people’s participation at planning meetings. “People’s views are being dismissed as if they are worth nothing - we must allow people to have their say as they always have.” A number of members of the pressure group East Devon Alliance attended the meeting, following comments made in a radio interview by Paul Arnott, the group’s chairman, that the proposals were designed to “gag” the public. But in a lengthy and heated exchange, councillors defended the measures, arguing that meetings of up to nine hours were unsustainable. Cllr Ray Bloxham, who put forward the proposals, said: “The aim is to extend public speaking. Pre-registration only means: tell us if you want to speak. “We are sometimes sitting for five or six hours at a time, and members can become tired and are having to leave before the end of meetings. We need to address that point. “In the rest of the South West, most councils have only one person speaking on planning applications – the highest we could find was two. This is not about limiting democracy.” Currently, any member of the public can attend a district council planning meeting and comment on an application without pre-registering. The measures would encourage those who wish to speak to liaise with other members of the public, in order to avoid repetition of similar points. Some members have interpreted the move as an attempt to stop residents from having their say, but Cllr Helen Parr, the current chairman of the council’s development management committee, said she was “astonished’ at calls to scrap the plans. She added: “Councillors are elected to make judgements and take decisions for the benefit of everyone. We have a serious amount of training in these matters. “I cannot see how the proposed arrangements will limit or prevent public participation.” Leader of the council Paul Diviani added: “The volume of applications coming before us is causing the problem. “We have got the scope to move things around as we see fit. But if something was considered important, the chairman could bring it forward as a single-item meeting.”


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