Villagers campaigning against a rash of new housing say an FOI request they made shows Harrogate Borough Council's fears that opposing planning applications would lead to ruinously expensive appeals is unfounded.
Hampsthwaite Action Group has been battling to stop what its argue is 'excessive' numbers of housing developments around the village, which lies five miles from Harrogate, for the last two years.
Such is its determination, it submited its own Freedom of Information request about the number and cost of planning appeals in recent years in the Harrogate district.
HAG now argues that the cost of to the council dealing with appeals over planning applications has been exaggerated and is a 'red herring'.
It says the council could now safely advise councillors to vote against housing plans whenever they feel like it.
HAG's chairperson, Terry Mounsey said: "The threat of the possibility of having to bear the costs of any public hearing appear to have been overstated, based upon the history of the past two years.
"The likelihood of appeals being dealt by other than written representations is extremely small. The cost of written representations as calculated by the council is nil. "
As a result of HAG’s FOI requests, the action group argues that the democratic process in Harrogate is failing local people.
He said: "HAG’s concern is that future planning applications might be subject to the kind of decision- making where councillors are under pressure to resist the appeals process because they have been given the wrong impression that it will be too costly.
"The FOI requests show that it is plausible for councillors to refuse planning without the fear of undue costs to the public."
But Harrogate Borough Council denies completely it has sought to avoid planning appeals and says it is following best practice.
Coun Rebecca Burnett, the council's cabinet member for planning, said: “The planning committee does not take legal costs into account when it is considering a planning application because costs are not a material planning consideration.
"Committee members must consider all aspects of an application alongside both national and local planning policy and make a decision based on the material planning considerations."
Having had a previous Local Plan rejected by the Government's planning inspector for failing to guarantee enough new houses would be built in the Harrogate district quickly enough to hit its targets, the council has advised caution to councillors on its planning committee when tempted to reject applications for new housing. In the past, the council has said it could risk substantial penalties if developers appealed successfully at a subsequent public hearing.
Hampsthwaite Action Group's new Freedom Of Information request reveals that over the past two years there have been 172 appeals within HBC's area in Harrogate, Knaresborough, Ripon and more. However, the information shows, of these, only 12 resulted in a public hearing in front of an inspector in the 2016-17 period.
The 160 other appeals were dealt with by written representations to the Planning Inspectorate with no public appeals held since January 2018. HAG argues that the FOI shows the cost of appeals fo Harrogate Borough Council has dropped considerably in recent years. In 2016/17 the cost of three public appeals was £51,000.
However, in the same period six public appeals resulted in no cost to the council and a further two at £800 and £10 respectively. With only six% of appeals resulting in a public hearing, the remaining 94% have been dealt with by written representations with no cost declared by the Council, other than officer time.
And HAG says in 2018 the cost of defending appeals has been reduced to nil.
But Harrogate Borough Council says the lack of costs incurred demonstrates that its policices are, in fact, proving successful.
Coun Rebecca Burnett said: "The statement from HAG cites the low number of appeal hearings and that costs against the council have fallen. In my view this is because better decisions have been made. This is not a reason to stop making good decisions - it is an endorsement of the good decisions we have made."
As a result of the findings in its FOI, HAG argues the council should now be free to change its guidance over planning decisions and possible appeals when it comes to new housing developments.
A HAG spokesperson said: "Councillors should view each planning application on its own merits and although they may feel intimidated by the cost of the three appeals from planning applications in 2015/16 that should not let it override a decision to refuse if they feel that they have sufficient reasons to do so. "
Harrogate Borough Council denies the the idea of appeal costs being part of consideration is inaccurate. It says councillors are free at all times to make decisions on planning applications for new housing purely on the evidence.
Coun Rebecca Burnett said: "If members are minded to refuse an application the reasons for doing so must be strong enough for them to believe the council could successfully defend the case at appeal, regardless of any costs.
"If they receive professional advice that a reason for refusal is not strong enough to be successfully defended, members can choose to go against it if they wish. It is advice, not direction. "
Like several other residents groups across the Harrogate district trying to block further housing developments, HAG now believes that target of new houses in Harrogate Borough Council's latest draft of its Local Plan is higher than it need be.
A HAG spokesperson said: "The council has now reached its five-year supply target and, therefore, can legitimately argue that planning applications can be refused without the fear of an appeal based upon the lack of supply.
"Because the draft Local Plan is so close to public examination planning applications which relate to preferred sites should not be given any more weight in favour of approval."
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