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Cheshire East Council looks set to scrap one of its three planning committees to save money and make the system more efficient, writes Belinda Ryan.

At present the authority has two “area committees” – northern and southern planning – which both have the same functions and responsibilities, but deal with planning matters on a geographical basis.

The strategic planning board (SPB) deals with planning proposals relating to major developments.

A report to the corporate policy committee recommended scrapping the SPB, with the area committees taking on responsibility for those planning applications.

But Macclesfield councillor Brian Puddicombe (Lab), the chair of strategic planning, said while he would support any proposals that make the service more efficient, he was not convinced scrapping the SPB would achieve that.

“The report states that reducing planning committees from three to two would release officer resource, this would be minimal at least,” said Cllr Puddicombe.

“If there had been just two committees in 2022, the 93 reports considered [by three committees] with the applications dealt with, would still need to have been written. There may have been fewer meetings, but the meetings taking place would subsequently have been longer.”

According to the report, the council will save £40,000-£50,000 through reductions in print and postage by not routinely printing committee agenda packs, using internal venues and pursuing other efficiencies.

Cllr Puddicombe said the print and postage costs are already being saved because councillors now use online agendas.

“The savings in special responsibility allowance are minimal,” he said.

Macclesfield councillor Fiona Wilson (Lab), who is vice chair of northern planning, chaired that committee’s meeting last week. It had six items on the agenda.

“The meeting lasted over five hours. We only took short but regular breaks and by the end of the meeting councillors were having to leave,” she said.

Planning officer Peter Hooley told the corporate policy meeting that officers would be able to work more efficiently if the number of planning committees was reduced.

Deputy council leader Craig Browne (Ind) said: “We know our residents, wherever possible, expect to see decisions being made by locally elected members who have an understanding of the issues facing those communities.

“Now we have the committee system the previous planning policy functions that sat under the strategic planning board no longer apply because these naturally go to the environment and communities service committee for consideration, so I think the reasons for retaining the SPB no longer do exist.”

Cheshire East is one of the busiest planning authorities in the country and has a significant backlog of applications.

Cllr Browne said: “That is precisely why we do need to reduce the number of committee meetings officers have to attend.

“Yes, they’ll still have to write the reports, they’ll still have to present them, but multiple officers will not be spending as many days in committees while those items are debated.”

The matter was being discussed as part of the annual review of the committee system and councillors were asked to vote on all matters together, which included amendments to the constitution in relation to notices of motion.

The corporate policy committee voted to recommend to full council that it agrees to realign the planning committees from three to two.

Full council will also be asked to agree that the public rights of way committee functions be incorporated with highways and transport committee.

The vote was eight in favour with all five Conservatives voting against all recommendations in the committee system review.

The final decision will be taken by full council at its next meeting on July 19.

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