A six week consultation is due to be held over how people communicate with the council about the planning process.
A Statement of Community Involvement (SCI) explains how people can be involved when the council is preparing planning policies, deciding planning applications and consulting on Neighbourhood Plans. The SCI is a statutory document, required under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004.
A review has been carried out by Thanet council and a change is proposed that could see a fee charged for comments received by email or letter that are “long or complex responses.”
A meeting of Cabinet members last week was told: “Comments we receive either by letter or email have to be entered onto the consultation portal by council officers, and this can be very time-consuming and cause delay to the Local Plan process. Based on previous experience, it is anticipated that the vast majority of representations would not be affected by fee charges.”
Comments entered directly through the council’s planning portal, which has been updated, would not be affected.
The agenda adds: “The changes proposed to the SCI do not materially affect the way the council will consult on planning issues.”
But Conservative members of the council’s shadow cabinet says they are concerned about the Labour administration’s plans for the fee. They say the wording is ‘vague’ and those who do not use or have access to computers will be unfairly affected.
In a statement the group says: “At a time when residents have been experiencing particular difficulties and with many businesses currently closed, it is alarming that this Labour administration would suggest changes that could discourage members of the public from commenting on planning issues that impact on them.
“Whilst many residents do use the online portal to submit their comments, the council should not assume that all sections of our community find it easy to navigate around a multi-level digital system and there will be residents that do not use or have access to computers and feel more comfortable submitting their comments in writing.”
Thanet Conservative group leader Cllr Ash Ashbee, added: “I am incredibly concerned by these proposals which have been brought forward at a time when we should be encouraging residents to engage more in the planning process, not less.
“There are residents across Thanet who are uncomfortable with IT and even if they can use the online consultation portal it should remain their choice on how they wish to communicate.
“All feedback from residents on planning matters should be welcomed by the council and we will be requesting the Labour Cabinet to remove this change from the SCI review.”
A Thanet council spokesperson said: “We want to clarify that the systems for commenting on planning applications and on planning policy consultations are two separate systems.
“The references in the Statement of Community Involvement (SCI) to the online consultation only refer to the planning policy system.
“The planning policy consultations relate to e.g. local development plans, the local plan and the approach to the various stages involved in preparing a neighbourhood plan.
“This is not related to comments about individual houses or housing developments which people can comment on in the planning application portal.”
Council leader Rick Everitt (Labour) says the change will reflect how people now interact with the council and charges would only apply in “exceptional cases.”
He said: “ We are updating the council’s formal statement of community involvement (SCI) on planning matters because the current version was adopted in 2007 and last reviewed in 2012. It therefore doesn’t reflect the changes in the way that people interact with the council since then.
“Cabinet’s decision last week was to hold a six-week consultation over proposed changes. Once we’ve received feedback, the changes will come back to cabinet to review and then go on to full council for decision. Nothing has been decided at this point.
“If the changes go ahead as proposed, everyone will still be able to submit their views on planning matters through the portal free of charge and most people who choose to send emails or hard copies for council staff to enter for them will not be charged either, even though this creates extra work.
“Charges would only apply where people who could use the portal themselves choose to make very lengthy and complicated submissions in other ways. These consume significant officer time to enter and therefore become a cost to residents. We would only expect a charge to be made in exceptional circumstances, if at all, but the provision would be there to protect council taxpayers from uncontrollable additional costs.
“Cabinet and council will want to take note of the feedback on this issue during the SCI consultation period before making any decision, so if people have views they should submit them. But any suggestion this is an attempt to restrict the public’s access to the council’s planning system is complete nonsense.”
The issue, which was also raised on social media by former councillor Ian Driver, has provoked a mixed response among residents. Some have voiced concern over how responses will be judged to be ‘long and complex’ while others thought the impact would be minimal.
Formal consultation is scheduled to begin this month and run into March.