Council chiefs in St Helens have hit back at criticism they received a £5,000 payment for planning advice from the company behind a controversial development in Haydock.
Campaigners, including the Rainford Action Group, which opposes plans to build on the village’s greenbelt, also criticised the council’s record of holding 77 meetings over the past three years with housing developers interested in building land in the borough.
There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by either Peel Holdings, who made the £5,000 payment, or St Helens Council.
Campaigners say both the number of meetings and the payment shows there is a need for greater transparency about the planning process.
However, the council’s top officer, chief executive Mike Palin, says such payments are “normal practice” in any planning application.
He said: “When someone wants to submit a planning application, they are encouraged to enter into pre-applications discussions with the council.
“Hence, the council meets developers and companies wanting to submit planning applications. This is normal practice.
“As the local planning authority, the council charges for pre-application planning advice, as do other council planning departments.
“The charge is proportionate to the cost of administering the process and is therefore on a sliding scale whereby those making a large application pay more than those making a small application.
“For example, someone wishing to discuss building a single house pays £144 ,and someone applying to build 100 houses would pay £4,800.
“The fee covers the costs of the correspondence and meetings associated with the process.
“The Local Plan is subject to an entirely different process which should not be confused.
“For the Local Plan, all parties are being treated professionally and equally and their submissions considered.
“Consultation events on the preferred options stage took place in December and January and any party could submit a consultation response.
“Having received those responses, the process now is to consider them all, which we are doing. Again, this is the appropriate practice.”
The information was revealed following Freedom of Information (FOI)Act requests.
The campaigners are also anger no minutes of any of the 77 meetings were kept.
Peel Holdings recently won an application to build a warehouse development in Haydock.
Records revealed under FOI rules show they also held six meetings in six months, including with council leader Barrie Grunewald and Mr Palin.
Paul Parkinson, chairman of Residents Against the Development of Florida Farm, said: “Many people will be surprised to learn Peel Holdings has paid the council a sum of money ahead of a planning application.
“The relationship between the two parties is becoming ever more involved. We would like to see much greater transparency around this and want the council to be absolutely clear about its agenda. Unfortunately they have not kept any minutes from these meetings or a public record of what was discussed.”
In Rainford, St Helens Council wants to release seven sites from the green belt to be used for an industrial unit and at least 1,140 houses.
James Wright, chair of Rainford Action Group, said: “It’s quite extraordinary that St Helens Council has held 77 meetings with housing developers in three years.
“They must have very little time left to do anything else. No wonder they needed to pay more than £200,000 to external companies to help them put their Local Plan together.
“It speaks volumes that the council can find so much time to meet so many housing developers but has refused to meet residents.
“They’re clearly determined to build as much new housing as they can in the borough regardless of need, environmental concerns or the objections of local people. We’re more than equally determined to stop them destroying our green belt.”