COUNCILLORS have backed proposals to give them more involvement from an earlier stage in major planning applications.
Hartlepool Borough Council is considering setting up a new forum which would see developers, councillors and planning officers discuss applications for major developments, such as new housing estates, at an earlier stage.
Officers say it will ensure members are fully informed, give communities a chance to have their views made clear, possibly speed up the planning process and improve the development.
The council’s planning committee backed plans for a pre-application development forum, but senior officers warned it “must be carefully handled”.
A report said: “Member engagement in pre-application discussions is not intended to bring forward their views on the proposal as such.
“They may or may not be in a position to give a preliminary view on a proposal, but they need to be advised that they should not express a view which may pre-determine their position in the event that they will be a member of the planning committee determining the application.”
Pre-application discussions, which would be held in as “public and transparent way” as possible, are not supposed to be a substitute for the formal consultation and processing of an application.
Officers stressed procedures would be put in place to ensure councillors that sit on the planning committee do not put themselves in a position where they cannot vote when applications for major developments reach the committee stage.
Labour councillor Marjorie James said: “In principle I welcome this report and I think it is a big step forward.”
Coun James said it will “strengthen the arm” of the planning committee and improve the relationship between members and members of the public.
Putting Hartlepool First group leader Geoff Lilley said: “It could be a brave step forward.”
But he questioned what onus is on the developer to take notice of the committee’s views at an early stage.
Damien Wilson, the council’s assistant director of regeneration and planning, said: “It is important that members of the committee can express a view on their aspirations for an area and what they want to be included.”
Conservative group leader Ray Wells said: “I definitely welcome this report and anything that encourages greater member involvement has to be a good thing.”
Labour councillor Chris Simmons said: “It would be useful for members to have training so that they do not fall into pre-determination.”
Mr Wilson added: “There is a high risk, part of which is perception.
“It is the practice of how the forum works, what kind of questions should be asked and not asked and what comments should and should not be made.
“The last thing we want is for a member to rule themselves out of the process due to a comment they make.”
The report was referred to the council’s constitution committee to set up the process.