A ‘DEMOCRATIC deficit’ will be created by cutting the number of meetings to decide development plans in Oxford, a councillor has warned.

Oxford City Council currently has two planning committees to decide on the most important planning applications in the city – a west area committee and an east area committee.

Most small planning applications are decided by council officers, but the biggest and most controversial ones go to one of the two committees made up of elected councillors, depending on which half of the city they are in.

However the council is now planning to merge those two committees and have just one panel for the whole city.

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The reduction is intended to save £45,000 a year and was made as part of the round of cuts in its 2021/22 budget.

But as councillors met to discuss the budget, and the changes to the council’s constitution – its rulebook – resulting from the reduction, there were warnings that it would have a negative effect on democracy.

At a meeting on Wednesday night, Andrew Gant, who leads the Liberal Democrat opposition, said: “We don’t support moving to a single area planning committee. There is a reduction in democratic oversight.

“But just as important is the public perception of being involved which, as elected members, should be front and centre in our thinking.”

Planning committees also allow members of public with strong feelings about applications to sit in on their councillors' discussions and to make statements themselves.

Andrew Gant

Andrew Gant

Councillor Andrew Gant.

He added: “There also doesn’t seem to be a shortage of applications coming to committee. The last planning committee I subbed on lasted three and a half hours despite the able chairing by councillor Cook.”

However, Nigel Chapman, the council’s cabinet member for ‘customer focussed services’, said he did not think it would create a democratic deficit.

The Labour member added: “We will still have many checks and balances in place if members feel too much power is being delegated to officers or if members feel there are things they would like to see discussed in public.”

And his colleague in the Labour group Alex Hollingsworth added that 95 per cent of planning applications are already dealt with by paid staff behind closed doors.

Mr Hollingsworth added the changes meant council officers would have to spend less time preparing reports on planning applications for committees.

He said: “This relieves pressure on council officers and leaves the planning committee to focus on those applications which need to have the proper process in a democratic way.”

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To make up for the reduction in the number of committees, the new planning committee for the whole city will have 11 members instead of nine.

The change will begin in May this year.

Another constitutional change which was proposed at last Wednesday's budget meeting was a move toward allowing cabinet members – the most senior councillors – to take decisions on their own, instead of with a vote from a committee.

There were concerns from Green councillor Craig Simmons about the democratic accountability of these decisions made by a single senior councillor.

But cabinet member Mr Chapman said they would not be an ‘in road’ for decisions to be made like this frequently.

Nigel Chapman

Nigel Chapman

Councillor Nigel Chapman.

At Oxfordshire County Council, a similar system for single cabinet members to make decisions on their own already exists.

Most of the time, the meetings scheduled to allow this to happen are cancelled because there are often no urgent decisions which need to be taken by a single councillor.

Another constitutional change agreed by the council means that any amendments to cross-party motions for debate have to be agreed by all the political groups on the council.

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A cross-party motion is a topic for debate which has the support of the heads of all the different political parties with elected members on the council.

At last Wednesday’s meeting, the council also agreed its budget for the next year.

To fund its £23.6m spending plan, the average Oxford household will be asked to pay £6.25 extra on council tax in the year from April, amounting to a total of £313.92.

The council will use this to fund services like moving rough sleepers into secure accommodation, and retrofitting all council houses with sustainable electric and heating fixtures.

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The city council’s tax increase will be added to the extra cash which Oxfordshire County Council and Thames Valley Police are both asking for.

This means the average Oxford home is likely to pay £2,130.64 over the year.