Editor’s letter: Removing planning comments from public view reduces transparency

tv harrison ground
Community campaigners are aiming to restore the pitch, off Oldfield Lane

By John Baron, WLD editor

I see senior councillors in Leeds have this week defended the removal of public comments from the local authority’s planning portal, amid claims it reduces transparency.

Leeds residents can still object to or support a planning application, but their comments are now not posted on the council’s online planning portal, as part of an initial six-month trial.

For years, people have been able to view details of a planning application in their community, comment on the proposals and view what other people have said, both for and against.

The council says the move has been forced by staff shortages and under-funding in the planning department and also say there is no legal requirement to publish the public’s comments on applications.

The local authority says “antagonistic” and potentiality libellous responses were being posted on its online planning portal more frequently, meaning its staff have to spend more time vetting and redacting comments. There are also concerns that some objectors may fear a digital ‘pile on’ and are reluctant to comment.

But critics argue it will undermine openness and trust in the planning process.

It’s undoubtedly a difficult issue. No-one can argue that the council hasn’t been hit by massive cuts from central government over the years, but I do fear the damage the decision will have on local democracy, if it moves beyond a six-month trial.

If I look at some of WLD‘s coverage of the big planning applications in West Leeds in recent years – such as the TV Harrison housing plans in Wortley, the new £9 million Pudsey Sixth Form College, the Rodley bridge and housing debacle and even the community reaction to the £100m+ flood defences in the Kirkstall Valley – a substantial proportion of our coverage would be much more difficult to source without access to comments.

The council are losing a lot of scrutiny – and the ability of the press and public to hold them to account or shine a light on planning issues.

Instead we will be awaiting for a general summary in a council planning officer’s report made public a week before the plans are decided and inevitably lose a lot of detail of what people local people were saying.

There’s a danger scrutiny of the council’s processes and decisions – and, indeed, public awareness of such applications – will be much reduced.

And the lack of transparency will do nothing to increase public confidence in a system where a common response from some is that “there’s no point in commenting as they’ve already made up their minds”.

In a recent application we reported in Wortley, even the name of the applicant had been purposefully redacted in documents. Where does this stop?

I sympathise with the council’s financial difficulties, but the public will lose far more than they gain from this and democracy and transparency will be the loser.

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