Agenda item

Pilot regarding the display of third party comments online, in respect of planning applications

To receive an evaluation from the Chief Planning Officer of the outcome of a pilot project (not to display third party comments online, in respect of planning applications) and to take a view on next steps.


Those in attendance for this item were:

·  Cllr Helen Hayden (Executive Member)

·  Dave Feeney (Chief Planning Officer)

·  Jonathan Carr (Head of Development Management)

·  Helen Cerroti (Team Leader)


The Chair introduced the item, noting that in June 2023 the Council began a 6-month pilot project to no longer publish third party comments on planning applications online.


The Executive Member asked that the Scrutiny Board consider the outcome of the pilot project after that six-month period. The 6-month pilot has now come to an end.


Key headlines from the pilot were shared with the Scrutiny Board including an increase in the number of comments on planning applications over the period, an increase in the number of comments made by neighbours, a reduction in data breaches, and an increase in staff capacity.


The Executive Member noted that there is no statutory requirement to publish third party comments online. She highlighted particular concern about the publication of comments online and the risk of accidental breaches of data protection legislation since the introduction of General Data Protection regulations (GDPR).


Members explored concerns about transparency and participation levels, as well as specific issues raised by parish and town councils.


The impact on staff of dealing with public comments that are abusive or offensive in nature was examined.

The Scrutiny Board was advised that improvements have been made to the Public Access system, including the introduction of tick boxes to help members of the public identify the most common material planning considerations.


Members were further advised that in response to concerns raised by Town and Parish Councils and Neighbourhood Forums, changes have been made to the system to enable them to opt for their comments to be published online without intervention from staff.


The Chief Planning Officer highlighted that the number of representations received during the pilot period exceeded previous volumes. He also reassured members that the non-publication of third-party comments does not compromise decision making process. All comments will continue to be considered by the relevant planning officer and there have not been any changes to the way in which broader planning processes operate.


Concern was raised about whether the scale of the staffing capacity released was sufficient justification for the nonpublication of third-party comments given concerns about a perceived reduction in transparency.


In response, the Executive Member highlighted the current demands on the planning service and the benefit of maximising the capacity of trained planning officers.  The Chief Planning Officer also noted the need for agility and flexibility within the service in the context of the new statutory requirements that will come into force in the near future.


It was suggested that some members of the public may feel more confident commenting on applications in the knowledge that they will not be identifiable by others.


The use of a pilot to test a sensitive change in practice was welcomed as a means to ensure members could assess the outcomes on the basis of evidence.


Reassurance was provided in response to concerns about Town and Parish Councils’ access to training on the Public Access system. An update was provided on advice and support provided at a conference for Town and Parish councils.


Members queried whether additional training should be provided to staff in relation to GDPR requirements to limit the risk of data breaches.


Members considered the complexity of the planning system for members of the public and welcomed improvements to the Public Access system.




Members of the Scrutiny Board agreed to note the outcome of the pilot and the evaluation set out in the attached report.

Members supported a recommendation by majority vote that the publication of third-party comments on planning applications should not be resumed.

Supporting documents: