New rules about questions from councillors prompt councillors to question the rules

Councillors who were told not to ask new questions at a Planning Committee meeting have called for a change in the way that the committee works.

During discussions about changes to the planning permission for Anston House, in Preston Road, Brighton, at Brighton and Hove City Council’s Planning Committee on Wednesday (10 June), Conservative Joe Miller was told not to ask “new questions”.

Before the coronavirus lockdown, officials would give presentations to the committee about a planning application and members would ask questions during the meeting in public.

At the “virtual” meeting on Wednesday, Councillor Miller challenged Councillor Tracey Hill, who chairs the committee.

Councillor Miller said that his understanding was that questions asked in advance by committee members had replaced the “planning briefing”, which was previously held privately before the committee’s meetings in public.

So, he said, he could ask as many questions as were necessary to help him reach a decision on each planning application before the committee.

Councillor Hill said that this was not the case and that there were no presentations because they were “too difficult to handle”.

This was despite other council committees continuing to include visual presentations from officials, including a lengthy presentation to the Health and Wellbeing Board on the covid-19 coronavirus the previous day.

Officials answered Councillor Miller’s questions as Councillor Hill said that she was using “her chair’s discretion” to allow his questions.

Councillor Miller said: “I think in light of new working practices, it is now time to reconsider how member engagement in relation to Planning Committee is dealt with.

“A review of how the committee works is now necessary in my view.”

During the discussion about the improvement works for Black Rock, independent councillor Tony Janio was told that he should have asked questions about transport before the meeting.

He said: “There is a dispute about what questions are permitted in committee.

“If they are on the presentation, they should be asked before. If they are to officers in general on the scheme and need to be kept dry, then they should be allowed in committee.

“This is where Tracey does well but may be slightly too severe! She may be stopping too many questions.”

Virtual meetings of the Brighton and Hove City Council Planning Committee are webcast

An unattributed list of questions was released in an addendum before the meeting.

Councillor Hill said “There are no planning presentations taking place in private. Visual presentations are circulated and made available publicly.

“Councillors are asked to submit questions in advance while we are meeting virtually to help these meetings more efficient and run more smoothly as we don’t have visual presentations within the meetings.

“The questions, the responses and all the visuals are made available online as part of the committee papers for full transparency.

“If questions are asked in advance, questions and answers are published along with the late list.

“If questions arise due to something on the late list, or in response to answers which have been given, or the site visit, or during public involvement, councillors can ask these questions.”

  1. Tracey Hill Reply

    Last week was the fourth planning committee meeting held virtually using the same procedures. To date I’ve had no requests for these procedures to be revisited. There was some discussion some time ago by email but no contributions to these discussions were made by Cllrs Miller or Janio. Officers were asked to answer all questions asked in the meeting, however it wasn’t always possible for them to give a comprehensive answer because they had no notice of the questions, which were at times very specific, and to get the information involved trawling through considerable amounts of material. Doing this during the course of a meeting is not ideal which is why, even before the move to virtual, members have always been encouraged to ask questions and get the information they need before the start of the meeting. Many members have been doing this, and prior to last week’s meeting over 30 questions were asked and answered beforehand (these are all published online). Some of these questions were very detailed and had several parts to them. The meeting itself ran for over 3.5 hours. If all 30 of these questions had been asked during the course of the meeting, it would have been an extremely long meeting, possibly with long pauses needed while officers – all of whom are working remotely – searched for responses. Over 40 people were logged into the meeting including members of the public waiting to speak on later agenda items. In my view it’s not unreasonable for members to submit requests for additional information in advance, particularly since there is always a debate on each item during which members can refer to responses and give their views, and members can always ask follow-up questions to responses previously given or questions that arise from public involvement. If members are now inclined to think otherwise, I will look forward to hearing their suggestions.

  2. roy pennington Reply

    Questions “to officers in general on the scheme () need to be kept dry” : what is a “wet” question?
    Seriously, the transparency of the Planning Committee should be looked in to clearly. But in many cases the “questions” to officers are probably rhetorical only and best left to the debate itself.

  3. Christopher Hawtree Reply

    The point about Questions – as with life in general – is that they occur to people/Councillors along the way, and councillors are obliged to keep an open mind through the debate and come to a Decision when voting. It is not a matter of turning up for the Meeting and doing it by rote.

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