Peter Moss, who is also the cabinet member for planning on the authority, said he was concerned about rumours suggesting that the temporary suspension of planning committee meetings had been used as an opportunity to approve requests which might otherwise have been refused.
The cross-party gathering at the town hall – at which decisions are taken on the most significant applications lodged with the council – last took place in March. All council meetings were put on hold at the start of the lockdown.
Since then, responsibility for deciding committee-level applications has been conferred on the chief executive. In April, he accepted recommendations from planning officers to approve several schemes, including the construction of a ‘sloping’ tower block on Church Row in the city centre and the partial demolition of St. Joseph’s orphanage for housing.
But Cllr Moss stressed that those applications were due to be dealt with – and that the authority was bound by rules about how long they can take to process them.
“In terms of the conspiracy theory that it’s a big plot to get contentious decisions through during this crisis period – that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“The emergency powers have only been used once and councillors didn’t want it any more than residents did, but the applications kept coming through the door and we had to keep the process going,” Cllr Moss explained, adding that cross-party advice had been given to the chief executive to inform his decisions.
He also wanted to quash claims that new applications, which may be weeks away from being decided, will be assessed under the same emergency system.
Cllr Moss told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that as of next week, the planning committee will resume its normal role – although not in normal circumstances.
Members will meet remotely and the public will also have the chance to make representations, just as they would if the committee was gathered in the town hall. The debate will also be live streamed online so that anybody can access it.
“We’re desperate to get accountability and proper public participation back into planning.
“We’ve been doing our very best to get the technology in place to help make local democracy more accountable. We haven’t had the capacity for virtual committees up until now, mainly because of austerity and we decided that the money it would cost should have been spent elsewhere.”
Preston’s first virtual planning meeting begins on 11th June at 10am