An extension of a week has been given for public comments on the Weymouth and Portland and West Dorset Local Plan review.

The combined councils issued a news release late on Tuesday afternoon admitting that they have had technical problems and would be giving people an extra week, until midnight on October 15.

The authorities had originally denied there was any problem with their online site – despite many residents reporting difficulties.

“The consultation has been extended due to some technical issues taking place with our email account on the final day of the original consultation period. This meant a number of responses weren’t able to be submitted," the release said.

Cllr Ray Nowak, Weymouth & Portland Borough Council's Briefholder for Environment and Sustainability, said:“A number of residents have been in contact over the last 24 hours to inform us of the problem and we apologise for any issues that have been experienced. The right thing for us to do is extend the consultation, to allow for these comments to be received.

“We want as many responses to this consultation as possible in order to inform member decision making.”

Cllr Ian Gardner, West Dorset District Council’s Portfolio Holder for Planning, said: “This provides a further opportunity for anyone who may not have found the time to have their say on the ‘Preferred Options’.

“I encourage anyone interested in the future development in the area, to read the proposals and share their views.”

At the time of the original deadline, midnight on October 8th, the review had received around 900 responses.

Following the closure of the consultation at midnight on October 15th, planning policy officers will analyse the responses and work up a final draft of the local plan review. This revised plan will be consulted on in the future – expected to be summer 2019.

Poor response to plan

Problems with making online submissions about the review of West Dorset and Weymouth and Portland’s Local Plan could have contributed to the poor public response.

Some are reported to have tried to make their submission online but found it too complex and gave up.

Less than one per cent of the area’s population decided to comment on the plan – although it will shape developments in both areas until 2036, including proposals for a ‘new town’ for Dorchester and major expansions of housing schemes in and around Weymouth and Crossways.

By almost 2-1 those who did respond chose to do so by email or letter, rather than the councils’ preferred online solution.

Said Kate Hebditch from the group protesting against the Dorchester North proposals: ”Lots of people have expressed their exasperation with the online comments form.”

Major groups, such as the Dorset Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Dorchester Civic Centre, chose to avoid the online system and stick to more traditional methods.

Dorchester town councillor Janet Hewitt said: “I have numerous phone calls about people not easily being able to leave comments on the local plan. Some people have just given up are very concerned that they are unable to comment on this topic.”

Michael Jackson from the Weymouth group opposing development off Wyke Oliver Close, known as Wey 14, said: “I now have a good understanding of the process but it has taken a number of days and getting the comments to relate back to the policies would I suggest be way beyond what more residents have the time or energy to do.”

Tess James, the new Dorchester Civic Society chairman commented:”It seems some people have been put off by online submissions.

“Overall the public response is appallingly low for such an important strategic document, which I personally find very sad.”

Parish clerk at Crossways, Emma Selwey, who is used to online council submissions said of the process: “It is not difficult but it is long winded and complex. Each question has to be answered with a separate online submission with a maximum of 1,000 characters. If your answer is longer you can submit a separate document with an explanation of what the document is. Each document or answer must identify the proposal (DOR15 for example) and the question number being answered.”

Val Potter from Dorchester, who is married to town council planning chairman Robin and is herself a former councillor said she found the process overly complicated: “I tried to do the online form and was a bit surprised that it required me to register first. It would then not let me register as I share an email address with Robin.

“The online form requires a separate form for each ‘comment’ but I was unsure of the definition of ‘comment’ – whether a comment could include all the points I wanted to make about a particular policy or if each point was a comment therefore requiring six different forms.”

On October 2, six days before the final deadline the two councils reported 348 submissions – 127 via the online form and 221 submitted via email or in paper form.

“We have not had any reported problems about the online form,” said a council spokesman at the time.