Committee members will need to be better at planning comfort breaks

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planning committee chairman Jock Houston has finally called time on councillors who leave the Newtown chamber for comfort breaks during the consideration of planning applications.

And members who have to use the toilet during discussion of items will, henceforth, not even be allowed to re-enter the chamber until a decision has been made.

Last year, Councillor Donald Moffat (SNP, Mid Berwickshire), who arrived a few minutes late for the start of a meeting, was told by Mr Houston he could not reasonably contribute to a planning debate as he was unaware of the discussions that preceded his entrance. Mr Moffat was not, however, asked to leave the chamber.

At the time, the Lib Dem chairman from Hawick reminded members to keep their absences to a minimum.

With that warning in mind, Councillor Trevor Jones (Con, Mid Berwickshire) courted controversy in February when he left during a debate on a hugely controversial plan by Transport Scotland to realign the A7 near Falahill to accommodate the Borders railway and avoid a high speed gas main: a proposal which attracted 37 objections.

The committee voted 4-3 to approve the scheme after Mr Jones had ruled himself out of the discussion as he had been at the toilet for eight minutes.

“I felt it was better to play safe and opt out of voting,” said Mr Jones at the time.

Given the closeness of the vote, Mr Houston authorised the committee’s legal advisers to examine how other planning authorities operated in relation to committee members leaving the chamber.

“Since February I have been checking my watch when councillors go and return and operating a two-minute rule. Up until the last meeting, this had been complied with.”

However, when the planning committee sat last Monday, members were unaware that Mr Houston’s ad hoc guidelines had been formalised, but it was Mr Moffat who was, again, first to fall foul of them.

After the Coldstream man had returned from a short break, Mr Houston went into a whispered discussion with Graham Nelson, the SBC solicitor in his role as clerk to the committee, whereupon Mr Moffat was asked to leave the chamber.

Later in the meeting, the same ban was imposed on Councillor Carolyn Riddell-Carre after she too had left briefly and returned.

Mr Houston explained that, based on the feedback from other councils, any absence, however temporary, would henceforth preclude councillors from being in the chamber, but that they would be called in at the conclusion of any particular planning bid discussion.

On the suggestion of Mrs Riddell-Carre, Mr Houston agreed this edict would be made clear at the start of every meeting when he would also intimate a pre-arranged adjournment for members requiring a comfort break.

“In special circumstances, if a member needs a comfort break between items, then he or she can request one and I will delay discussion until his or her return,” Mr Houston told TheSouthern.

“But I’m afraid that other councils operate a zero tolerance policy on this issue and we must do the same,

“We are, after all, a quasi-judicial body making important decisions such as the one in which we agreed to support the A7 alignment.

“It would not be acceptable in a court of law for a juror to nip out during evidence and from now on the same rules will apply to the planning committee.”