Concerns raised over council’s proposed fee for ‘long and complex’ planning policy comments

Thanet council

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.”

Cllr Ash Ashbee

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.


  1. This implies that information embedded in e-mails can “consume significant officer time to enter”. Can somebody please tell the officers that they do not need to re-enter every word; there is a wonderful labour saving device known as copy and paste and it takes only a few seconds to operate!

  2. Can we charge them for each day we wait for a new bin to be delivered then. Its so stupid this new rule. The planning officers are paid to do that job if they can’t do it in the allocated consultation time simply extend the consultation time. All this will simply do is favour the developer as less people will want to object.

  3. Perhaps if the current portal wasn’t down most of the time residents could put their comments through, which would save the council time? Or perhaps they need to procure a better system?

  4. Ridiculous and immoral to charge people to make a comment on planning applications that will affect them. Who could think this up? How does it take so long to copy and paste an email into the portal comment section or take a photocopy of a letter? If there are not enough planning officer clerks then employ more to do the jobs that need doing, not think of more ways to bring funding in. The planning department at TDC is running backwards so employ more staff. Put the parking officers out in the evenings and weekends during the long summer season to bring more funding in, also litter wardens to collect funds from beach and promenade litter louts. Fine the idiots causing mayhem along the coast with their jetskis. There are a number of normal ways to bring funds into the council that do not get explored here in Thanet. Canterbury Council do quite well out of using their parking wardens at weekends and bank holidays in just Herne Bay alone.
    Come on TDC think again and stop being silly.

  5. The current portal is in effect censoring, (that’s if you eventually find it) – there’s a limit of characters to the equivalent of about 10-15 paragraphs and no option for uploading photographs or technical drawings and sketches.

    If your comment/ objection is sent by email then the copy and paste method is digitally very straightforward as with uploading attachments of PDF’s. Hand prepared documents should be scanned unless there is a chapel of scribes in the planning department studiously copying drawings.

    As Cllr Ashbee identifies the proposition for fee payment is unspecified, undemocratic because people won’t know whether they have to pay to say and open to future abuse by zealous overcharging by the council – just like parking!

    Finally, the cost of planning applications should cover most of the objections if any.

    Is this review preparing for the privatisation of planning?

  6. I smell a rat with this. Are the council trying to bulldoze planning applications through so that neighbours/interested parties are put put off with either commenting or objecting.

    • No.
      The processes currently used by most people making comments on planning applications will still be available.

    • Mike I completely agree with you I have sent two letters of objection and three e mails to planning dept wanting to know why my objection has been ignored and guess what?nothing no reply zilch nada diddly squat.

  7. I feel like I am in a parallel universe where a Conservative opposition party are challenging a ruling Labour party on this. This policy will unfairly hit poorer people, disabled people and the elderly. These groups in the community are far less likely to have Internet access. I cannot fathom that our Labour Cabinet who paint themselves as the champions of the people are bowing to the officers’ demands that this is introduced. It’s disgraceful at a time when we should be encouraging people to take more of an interest in community matters. Rick Everitt and his Cabinet colleagues should hang their heads in shame for abandoning their party principles so readily to keep their officer bosses happy.

    It’s clear to me that the officers run TDC and the Cabinet just nod things through for them.

  8. I come to the conclusion that just about everyone posting on this thread had not read the OP.
    No one using the portal will be charged. It will still be free.
    People can still make their comments about parking, drains, aquifers, DFLs and it won’t cost them a penny.
    And even if the old fashioned routes to comment are used, only in exceptional circumstances would a charge be likely (eg a 10 page document about fire fighting foam,with links to obscure and arcane references, each one of which would have to be checked by an officer)
    This is a consultation, so make concerns about accessibility and so on to the Council (through the proper channels, of course)

    • I think the point around accessibility is the Council should have written and published an Equality Impact Assessment to accompany the draft policy. Without this they are flying blind on what the impact on the community will be. They simply don’t know.

      They clearly haven’t done this and I can’t believe, at their level of seniority, the officers have forgotten to do this and, more startling, the Labour Cabinet have nodded it through without querying it either.

      It shouldn’t be for the likes of me to respond to the consultation to remind TDC senior managers of their legal responsibilities. Nor should it be for me to remind the Labour Cabinet that they should be challenging this prior to it seeing the light of day.

      It’s shoddy and a reminder that they couldn’t give a stuff about the impact on the community that they are there to serve.

      • I think the point about accessibility is that tax payers (and other stake holders) should have the facility to make comments about planning applications.
        In that respect, nothing (under these proposals) will change. The existing channels will still be available.
        But if you simply must send in a lengthy quasi-scientific comment about (for example, Thanet’s aquifers), then it *might* attract a fee.
        The Council is trying to save money.
        Our money.

    • Andrew, there is nothing old fashioned about using e-mail. It is usually more robust than using a portal; you are guaranteed a permanent record of your submission; you can include images easily and you can CC other members of your community into it. Portals can be black holes.

      • And, unless your email is complex or lengthy, it is unlikely to attract a fee.
        It is possible to take a screen dump of a portal submission fir your own records, if you want to.
        Why not take part in the consultation and suggest that portal submissions generate a confirmatory email, for example?

        • Yes, I will take part in the consultation; but it’s a shame this unthinkable scenario is even been mooted.
          The TDC portal is better than most. Unlike other variants, it does generate an e-mail that serves not only as a confirmation but also packages up your submission. It’s pretty good, but like most webapps it’s intimidating to newcomers.
          Screen dumping is not an option when scroll bars are in use; better approach is to write your responses on your own device and copy them across.

    • Won’t they have to check the documents if referenced when using the portal then? They will surely have to check either way. All that is needed is to copy or scan them in.

  9. For every long document there will be a short one, which will average them all out. Stop trying to stifle democratic freedom of speech TDC, and just get on with your job. If the job is too much for you, step aside and make way for someone else.

    • TDC isn’t trying to stifle “freedom of speech”. You might have noticed that TDC has no intention of charging for portal submissions, nor for email or snail mail submissions that are not lengthy or complex.

      • But there is no definition of what the council will regard as “ lengthy or complex”. The word “ lengthy” is in itself open to interpretation.
        My response to the last selective licensing consultation ran to 40 pages having replied to what was a very “ lengthy” consultation document produced by the council. Whats the point of having consultations if you wish to limit peoples ability to respond.

        • I’m sure that the definitions of “long” and “complex” could be included in the new scheme.
          Why not suggest it in the consultation?

          • How can you respond to something that has a lack of definitions? Will they proportionate to the “size” of the matter being commented on? A consultation with no parameters is a farce designed to make sure the correct result is achieved.

      • Andrew – do you work for the planning department? Seems to me you protest too much – long and complex (not defined) submissions will be charged – simples?

      • What exactly is snail mail? Is this a nickname for the reliable and efficient next-day delivery known as Royal Mail? Admittedly not as fast as e-mail when e-mail works properly, with good wifi, and when no interfering firewalls or spam filters are preventing delivery. But by no means is it inferior to e-mail.

        • It’s not usually next-day delivery in my experience. I’ve never thought “snail mail” was anything other than purely descriptive -it is an undeniable fact that an e-mail usually gets there more quickly than a letter.

          • “snail mail” can also be used as a patronising, ageist expression to ridicule people who do not live in the online world. E-mail and traditional mail need to co-exist; they each have their strengths and weaknesses, and nobody should be bullied into spending hundreds of pounds a year simply to exist online.

  10. Any views should be short and succinct,otherwise they won’t be read and more importantly will not be acted on.
    I have sent many an e-mail to Planning and never been charged. What is of more concern is that they very rarely reply to them
    Pethaps that is what we should be more concerned about

  11. Excellent news! we’ve mastered the art of not answering phone calls by tying callers in knots with monotonous, press 1 for this, 2 for that, 3 to be cut off and if they do manage to get through, it’s an answering machine, that says, you can’t leave a message because the tape is full ha ha. So now we’ll gradually roll this out through all platforms of contact, after all, we don’t want to listen to you constantly telling us we’re doing a lousy job xx

    • The existing channels of communication will stay as they are. If you make a submission through the portal, you won’t get tied up at all.

    • I am 70 and have never thought of “snail mail” as an ageist term. (This is a reply to Ian.) I am not much good at computer stuff and send letters whenever I want to.

  12. Sorry – a developer spends 3 years developing a proposal that runs to 60-100 documents, 1,000’s of pages, and those who may suffer as a result have three weeks and a side of A4 to make their point? Am I hearing this right?
    We know that TDC doesn’t like transparency or any outside involvement (unless it’s their pals) so this is not a suprise – the suprise is that they have told us before they do it.
    This is a rotten council, has been for years – inept councillors guided by self serving officers, all surrounded by a whiff of fish.

  13. Labour run TDC are a SHAMBLES.

    Well done for putting Labour in charge, Thanet Independents Cllr group. This is on you.

    • Nothing has happened to free speech.
      You will still be able to comment on planning applications through the channels you currently use, for free.
      If you send in a large or complicated submission, you *may* be charged.

      • Whichever way you look at it, whether there is a one percent chance or a ninety percent chance of being charged, this is a deterrent to participating in democracy.

        • If you can’t use the planning portal then I suppose you send a letter. It would be intereting to take a belt-and-braces approach and see what happens. Except that that would certainly waste council employees’ time and,therefore, tax-payers’ money.

          • We shouldn’t feel guilty about using up employees’ time in this way, especially when we are using up our own valuable free time providing free advice to the council. The officer effort required to transfer our comments is only a fraction of the effort we should expect them to spend analysing the comments (irrespective of the means we deliver it).

            And posting a letter is not the only alternative. The best alternative is a direct e-mail to the planning department. This is the most efficient way for a group of residents to convey their thoughts using devices and a format they are comfortable with. It also allows them to CC their comments to witnesses and supporters. (Portals allow councils to divide and conquer the people).

  14. I also don’t see how it saves money. The same number of staff will be employed as now regardless of how many long and complex email/written responses they get. By the time they have calculated a potential charge for someone, got senior officer approval, asked their Finance team to raise an invoice, possibly send reminder invoices if it isn’t paid, dealt with correspondence querying the charges etc the extra income will, at best, be cost neutral but may actually end up costing them more in staff time.

    This will not save taxpayers’ money, will disproportionately affect poorer people, the disabled and the elderly and is a really shambolically thought through idea by senior managers who should know better.

  15. I don’t see how the proposed scheme affects the poor (etc) any more than the current scheme.
    The new channels will be just like the existing ones, with the exception that lengthy or complex submissions *might* attract a fee.

    • If I have Internet access and send a lengthy reply to a planning issue (which are sometimes very lengthy and complex themselves) using the portal I don’t get charged. If I haven’t got access to the Internet and send the same reply in to the Council in writing I may get charged under the new policy.
      People on low incomes are less likely to have access to the Internet. That is proven in empirical data.

      Join the dots. It’s not difficult.

      • And it shouldn’t take any more time to read the your comments whether it is on the portal or in an email or letter. It won’t even take much more time for the planning clerks to copy from email or letter onto the portal so no matter how long a submission is there is no justification to start charging an unknown amount fee to anyone doing what they have a right to do. It is nothing more than a nonesense.

  16. This will DEFINITELY hit the poor, the disadvantaged and the elderly the hardest. The portal is outside their comfort zone and probably beyond their expenditure limits.

    Even if they use traditional mail or e-mail rather than the portal, the very threat of a fee is a form of bullying.

    How confident will citizens feel about sending a photograph as part of their representation? Will they be charged per pixel?

    • It definable won’t hit the poor any more than the current system.
      Exactly the same facilities will be available under the new system as under the current one.
      The only difference is that if you send in a long or complex submission, it *might* attract a charge.

      • In my vocabulary the expression “might attract a charge” means “you are at risk of being charged if you dare to cross a blurred threshold”. In other words, a threat. Intimidation. Bullying.

        • Each one to his own.
          The proposed situation is no different from the current one, except that there is a proposal to charge a fee for lengthy or complex submissions. (Between the lines, this probably means vexatious serial quacks).
          It would be great to see what the charges might be, and what criteria would used in deciding them. Maybe you’d like to make a positive contribution to the consultation?
          Threat? No. They intend to do it.
          Intimidation, bullying? How so?

          • Members of the public are being bullied into using the online portal. As a concession, they will still be allowed to send letters or e-mails, but they will be intimidated into thinking they are inadequate or a nuisance for making this choice, and there is a threat of being charged. As a result, certain people will be deterred from getting involved in democracy.  

    • It’s extremely unlikely that the council will intimidate any individuals over this, but that doesn’t mean that individuals won’t feel intimidated by the overall process. There will be peer pressure to “move with the times” and individuals or groups could feel ridiculed if they don’t align. It’s subtle and it’s been happening everywhere for over a decade.

Comments are closed.