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Councillors 'should stay out of pre-planning or risk legal strife'

New government guidance encouraging councillors to become more involved with pre-planning increases the chances of potential legal challenges, an important local authority body has warned.

According to the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors (ACSeS), councils should ignore a recent report - drafted in part by Arup - which recommends increasing involvement from councillors at the pre-application stage, or risk possible judicial review proceedings.

The association fears that the report released by the Department for Communities and Local Government, entitled Councillor Involvement in Planning Decisions, could open up decision-makers to accusations of bias and breaches of the rules of natural justice.

Although welcoming the gist of the report, ACSeS member Phil McCourt, legal services and monitoring officer for Milton Keynes Council, said the authors of the report had 'paid no regard to the decision-making process'.

He said: 'On a technical level, the report looks at planning appeal decisions without, at any point, looking at the law on decision making or mentioning natural justice. This seems extraordinary.

'There are councillors who want to get involved and get their hands dirty [in pre-planning] thinking they are doing the best for their constituency. However, while the report says they are to be careful it does not say why and how they have to be careful.'

A Communities and Local Government spokesperson said:

'Our report is based on findings from a range of local planning authorities.

'The Local Government Association was involved in its development and was represented on the project steering group.

The report takes careful account of national and local guidance on the conduct of councillors. The report recommends that all council members should receive training in planning matters.'

by Richard Waite

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