A GOVERNMENT department has said that planning decisions must be made with an "open mind" after council officers and members discussed a controversial scheme behind closed doors.
It has emerged that Staffordshire Moorlands councillors and officials held a private meeting shortly before proposals for a Marston's Inn and Restaurant in Leek were to be debated at a full planning meeting.
The application was subsequently approved – but now calls have been made for the plan to be resubmitted and a new committee be installed while an investigation is undertaken into the council's planning department.
A spokesman from the Department for Communities and Local Government told the Post & Times: "Councillors on a planning committee are required to take decisions with an open mind, based on the all the material planning considerations in front of them at the meeting.
"This can include considering legal and professional advice from council planning officers.
"However, confidence in local democracy and the planning process is strengthened if substantive advice and representations are either given in written committee papers accessible to the public, or verbally in an open session of the planning committee meeting."
The private and subsequent meetings involved Marston's application to build a pub and restaurant on the Sainsbury's site at the Churnet Works in Macclesfield Road. Paul Richardson of The Dyers Arms pub in Macclesfield Road said: "It cannot be right that a private meeting took place over the application prior to it going in front of the planning committee in public session. A new planning committee should now be installed and the plan brought before the council again."
Planning committee member Linda Malyon said she regarded the private meeting as a "form of lobbying".
She said: "The planning committee is like a judicial jury. I was given the impression we were being told what to do. This goes against everything I believe in."
Another planning member Mike Worthington said there were issues over a so-called 106 agreement.
He added: "We were given advice that an agreement regarding affordable housing on the site had not been drawn up properly. It needed to be more robust, so there was no reason to turn the plan down.
"It was a private meeting and a legal team told us to be mindful."
Councillor John Fisher said: "The lawyer informed us over the legal side and the difficulty to defend it as the 106 agreement was not watertight. I did not feel pressurised."
District councillor Pam Wood said: "For some time I have had serious misgivings about the way the district council's planning department works.
"Given the latest information and the recent disclosure regarding legal advice given to the planning committee, I think it is time for a robust investigation into the practices of the planning department.
"Elected councillors must be free to make decisions on behalf of their constituents without pressure."
In A statement to the Post & Times, Robert Weaver, head of regulatory services at Staffordshire Moorlands District Council said: "Members of the planning committee were advised prior to the planning committee meeting, by the council's legal representative, on the legal and technical process relating to an application to vary a 106 agreement associated with the original Churnet Works. This was to ensure members of the committee fully understood the 106 variation process.
"The committee do not hear many applications to vary 106 agreements, so it was important they understood the process, together with the technicalities of the original 106 agreement. This was the sole purpose of the meeting.
"The plans for the Marston's application were not discussed, neither were any other applications on the agenda that day. As such, there was no requirement for members to declare an interest when the Marston's application was considered by the committee because none of them had a personal interest, nor had the matter been previously discussed. There is absolutely no suggestion that either committee members or officers have breached any protocols."