The latest moves in the Pincents Lane saga have shone a spotlight on the strange manner in which democracy is operated in West Berkshire.

Of the 30 or so councils monitored by Thames Tap, West Berkshire is the only one we are aware of which operates its kind of two-tier system, where decisions are made by an appropriate local committee, then if those decisions turn out to be the ‘wrong’ ones, they are referred up to a less local one to be overturned.

We sought an explanation about how this works. We were told the district planning committee (DPC) is the parent committee of the eastern and western area planning committees.

The wording we were directed to states:

DPC will consider recommendations deemed by the council’s development control manager to have:

  • a possible conflict with a policy that would undermine the Local Plan or the Local Development Framework;
  • a district-wide public interest; or
  • the possibility for claims for significant costs against the council.

However well-intentioned, what this means is members of a local committee can make their decision, based on what the locals say, safe in the knowledge that the real decision is, at least partially, taken out of their hands (the DPC is made up of members of both eastern and western committees).

So, whereas councillors in Reading had to run the gauntlet of protesters when they gave permission for houses at the controversial former Reading Golf Club site in Emmer Green, many of those in West Berkshire can appear to do as the locals wish, then wash their hands of the final decision.

This effect was shown to be particularly absurd when Lidl planned its new store in Tadley, just within the West Berkshire boundary. Locals were massively in support and the eastern area planning committee voted to approve it.

Then the district planning committee turned it down. Then the Planning Inspectorate upheld Lidl’s appeal. Now construction workers are onsite, but they could have been onsite two years earlier had it not been for all this red tape and delay.

During the district planning committee’s online meeting, members spoke of their concern that the development was outside the settlement boundary. Were they to express their concerns to the less well-off population of Tadley, they might feel a little less removed from the reality people face in coping with the rising cost of living.

In the case of Pincents Lane, congestion and the site’s access road are high on the objectors’ concerns. We would hazard a guess that members of the district planning committee might not be as troubled by such issues.

West Berkshire’s system doesn’t seem to adhere to the point of the democratic process, let alone offer the best way forward for the planning system.

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