SECRET meetings between planning officers and councillors are set to continue, in what the Lib Dem leader has branded “a bad day for openness and transparency”.

Wiltshire Council’s overview and scrutiny management committee voted that these meetings should be allowed to continue on Tuesday.

The proposal was put forward by the cross-party Planning Committee System Task Group, which is looking at ways to improve Wiltshire Council’s planning processes.

One of the proposals was that there should no longer be pre-meetings between planning officers and committee members, from which the public are excluded, ahead of publicly-held official meetings.

Leader of the opposition and Lib Dem leader Ian Thorn said he was “amazed” when Conservative councillors rejected the proposal following a “feisty debate”.

“Wiltshire residents have the right to know and see what their council is doing,” he said. “Holding secret meetings from which residents are excluded runs completely counter to that. It’s not a good day for openness and transparency.

“Planning is always contentious, and we don’t think it should be decided in private.

“It raises suspicions amongst the public that there is some wrongdoing taking place, even if there might not be.

“It allows councillors to ask difficult questions about the planning applications, and I think members of the public should hear those.”

But Conservative scrutiny committee member Matthew Dean said getting rid of the meetings would be “totally unreasonable and undemocratic”.

He said the meetings were used for information gathering and are simply “part of the planning process”, adding: “It’s really important that councillors have all the information to consider planning applications properly, and that would include having a dialogue with residents, developers and planning officers ahead of meetings.”

Cllr Dean also said pre-meetings are used to discuss “commercially sensitive” elements of planning, including section 106 money given by developers to local authorities.

Cllr Thorn raised concerns that it gave planning officers the opportunity to put pressure on planning committee members to persuade them to vote a certain way on applications, but Cllr Dean said: “I have never come across any of that, ever” and said if that was the case Cllr Thorn should raise a complaint about the officer in question.