A full council meeting heard that Paul Foster e-mailed a resident to say that any future Labour administration would halt the 1,300-home plan for Pickering’s Farm to carry out a review of wider planning policy in the borough.
But deputy Conservative opposition leader Caroline Moon criticised a subsequent remark suggesting that the application would be refused if developers attempted “to push it through” in the meantime.
“Labour are now the administration of this council. Labour chair and sit on the planning committee,” Cllr Moon said in a question to cabinet member for planning Bill Evans.
“Does Cllr Evans agree with me that Cllr Foster has placed this council in a worse position for determining this application than [was the case] prior to the election campaign?
“The Conservative group [believes] that, far from strengthening the position of residents, Cllr Foster has placed them in an unnecessarily precarious position.”
Cllr Evans rejected the suggestion that the authority had been left open to accusations that it had reached a conclusion about the development before the application had been properly assessed – and that the independence of the cross-party planning committee was intact.
“The planning committee is governed by [national planning rules]. The decision will be made by the planning committee [and] Cllr Foster doesn’t sit on [it] – so it’s not something that is predetermined,” Cllr Evans said.
The Pickering’s Farm application is due to be decided at a later date after a public consultation on a so-called “masterplan” for the area was carried out by developer Taylor Wimpey late last year.
Meanwhile, Conservative councillor Michael Green highlighted an online post from a resident in response to the recent refusal of planning permission for a 100-home development on Chain House Lane.
“I know we don’t have any control over what residents post, but they have [said] that the recommendation [for refusal] was in some way connected to Cllr Foster honouring his promises to the community.
“I don’t know the details and don’t wish to make any insinuation whatsoever, but it is a concern,” Cllr Green said.
Cllr Evans again dismissed any suggestion of “political” influence. He told the meeting that planning officers had recommended members reject the application because they disagreed with the applicant’s assessment that the borough could not demonstrate that it had identified sufficient land to meet its housing target.
Cllr Foster was unable to address the points raised at the meeting, because the questions were not directed to him. In a statement issued later, he said:
“I can confirm that any member (not on the planning committee) may speak for or against any planning application at any time.
“It is for members of the planning committee to make the final decisions on planning applications and to ensure they do not predetermine any application.
“Democracy encourages all local councillors to speak for or against all developments that have a potential positive or negative impact on the local community that they represent. Not to do so is a clear dereliction of their duty.
“As Leader of the Council, I will continue to oppose inappropriate development,” Cllr Foster added.
The process of reviewing the joint local plan for the South Ribble, Preston and Chorley council areas – which will determine sites deemed suitable for future development – began last year. The plan is not expected to be adopted until summer 2022.