COUNCIL bosses at Copeland came under fire this week over a controversial shake-up of the planning rules.

The proposed changes are part of a long overdue review of the constitution and governance of the authority’s most high-profile committee.

Among the most unpopular in a raft of measures was the plan to restrict site visits to members of the planning committee and officers.

The move follows claims parish councillors have been using the council-run trips to “lobby” planning panel members, creating the “appearance of bias” which could leave the authority open to legal challenges from developers.

However, the overview and scrutiny panel felt barring councillors from site visits would undermine public faith in the “openness and transparency” of the planning process - and recommended keeping the status quo.

Amendments to the proposals could be considered as early as September 9 by the full council, however parts of the report will be scrutinised by a separate committee.

Coun David Wilson, of the planning panel, urged officers to take their ideas “back to the drawing board” and described them as a “backwards step”.

He said: “Anyone reading these proposals might assume that the overall objective was to weaken the authority of the planning panel, strengthen the arm of the officers and reduce community participation and influence on the process.

“The proposals seek to put pressure on the panel in what is currently one of the most publicly-derided and reviled committees in local government.”

But Nick Hayhurst, the borough authority’s planning development manager and the council’s chief executive Pat Graham defended the proposed overhaul.

Mr Hayhurst stressed that parish councillors would still be able arrange their own separate site visits following the introduction of the changes.

He also strongly denied the shake-up represented an attempt to “disenfranchise” councillors or the people they were elected to represent.

He said that a site visit was intended to give panel members a better understanding of the site and should not be used as an opportunity to debate the merits of an application.

Mr Hayhurst added: “If we have parish councillors making observations at site visits then we would have to fair and invite the developer and their representative.

“And there is also a danger that the debate would actually start on the site rather than in the council chamber.”

The scrutiny panel also voted to strike out a proposal to limit the number of speakers and said this should be kept “open” in the spirit of fairness.

Members also objected to a proposal to bar members of the planning panel who had not attended an earlier meeting from voting at the determination stage – unless they had first listened to a recording or read a full transcript of the original meeting and signed a declaration.

However, the scrutiny panel agreed that “major” but non-controversial schemes should no longer automatically be reported to the planning panel for determination and could be dealt with by officers under delegated powers.

Around 90 per cent of all applications are already dealt with under delegated powers.

The panel did not oppose the extension of delegated powers to officers to allow them to serve stop notices on untidy lands and sites without consulting the planning panel.

The move is intended to support “effective enforcement”, allowing officers to “deal quickly” with breaches of planning legislation.

The changes with amendments are due to go before full council for full consideration, perhaps as early as September 9.

However, the controversial protocol section of the changes, including penalties for non-attendance, is now being looked at by a task and finish group as well as the ethics and standards board.

The scrutiny panel felt such chances should be applied across the board for councillors rather than focusing on the conduct of one particular committee.