Claims that the current consultation on the Dorset Local Plan are flawed have been denied by a senior councillor.

Planning brief holder Cllr David Walsh says that a lack of internet access and the pandemic restrictions should not stop people taking part in the exercise which ends in mid-March.

But Cllr David Tooke says the council should postpone the consultation until later in the year when face to face meetings might be possible and the council could arrange roadshows.

He claims the current exercise is a ‘democratically limited’ process.

“The current Local Plan Consultation strategy largely relies on people having access to, and sufficient familiarity and experience with, the internet.

“Whilst there are copies lodged with local Libraries people need to be able to book, collect, read and return these in a short space of time. Given the three-week loan period it’s likely that each copy will only be read by two, or at most three people, in the time available.

“Many people are suffering extreme hardship and stress, many juggling home working whilst having to home educate children, many battling with grief, or loss of their livelihood. A great number of people do not have access to on-line facilities or are simply unable to engage with it. This is not the time to be conducting a "public consultation" when a large number of local residents are unable to participate,” said councillor Tooke at Tuesday’s online full council meeting.

But Cllr Walsh claims that the council is doing more than it has ever done before to ensure residents can participate both online, or offline.

“Around 90% of residents have internet access and are therefore fully able to take part in the consultation online. There is no requirement in legislation to make individual hard copies available. Planning regulations were amended in response to the pandemic to remove the requirement for even inspection hard copies to be available.

“But, in the best interests of all our residents and to ensure no-one is excluded from taking part, we have planned for those who are not online. This includes the library copies, and we are making more copies available to those libraries where demand is greater.  The libraries can also arrange delivery if people are unable to collect a copy,” he said.

Cllr Walsh says the council has paid for social media advertising, arranged online webinars that can be accessed via the telephone and watched at any time, podcasts and a dedicated telephone line for people who would like to speak to planning officers and discuss anything to do with the plan.

“We’ve had around 50 articles in the traditional media and an article was sent to all parish and community magazines back in December to publicise the consultation. I myself have been interviewed on several local radio stations regarding the Local Plan consultation process,” he said.

“Delaying the consultation would have a major impact on the programme for preparing the local plan and would be an extremely high-risk strategy…All of our currently adopted local plans are more than five years old, and we do not have any parts of the council area that have both a five-year land supply and sufficient housing delivery in the last year to pass the ‘housing delivery test’.

“This means that we currently have less control over the development that takes place in our area, until we can adopt an up to date plan that allocates enough land to meet our development requirements. Therefore, it is vitally important for us to avoid any delay in preparing the plan. In short, waiting for the pandemic to blow over and everything to get back to normal is simply not an option for us,” he said.