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Who would be a planning Councillor?

30 August 2013

Andrew Matheson

Being a local Councillor with planning responsibilities has never been easy. Sustaining the vibrancy of local communities is a considerable challenge. Councillors seek to do this whilst navigating national policy directives, the varying interests of local MPs, constituents and businesses, as well as their fellow Councillors, and doing so with substantially reduced resources. And they fulfil this role in their ‘spare’ time, facing occasional accusations of corruption, and submitting themselves for substantial training appropriate to their quasi-judicial obligations.

Planning committee room

As the recent TV series ‘The Planners’ also clearly illustrated, Councillors taking local planning decisions can find themselves between a rock and a hard place, with the ultimately aggrieved party generally bemoaning that ‘I knew they wouldn’t listen to me’. At the same time, the local democratic processes that weigh the balance between public and private interests can leave Councillors – along with their professional officers – accused of erecting barriers to growth.

Localism, as one of the central planks of the Government’s approach in England, has added a further dimension to these pressures. This localism comprises both ‘sticks’ and ‘carrots’. The latter is represented by ‘Putting power back in the hands of local people’ as an attempt to overcome the ill-feeling generated by using regional intermediaries to press for growth and housing targets. The former is represented by the prospect that some local planning authorities, arguably the least well prepared, will lose democratic control over some planning decisions. Utilising designatory powers, this October the UK Government will start putting poorly performing Councils in England into ‘special measures’ and thus allow developers who believe that they will get a better service/decision to make their planning application directly to the Planning Inspectorate (PINS). Local hearings may then be held by PINS to help determine such applications. Councillors will no doubt seek to contribute to such hearings but will lose the right/obligation to make the ultimate decision. 

Local planning authorities will be placed in special measures if they determine 30% or fewer major applications on time, or if more than 20% of major decisions are overturned at appeal. These are deemed to be proxies for service standard and quality. Planning Minister Nick Boles has said that the Government hopes that "vanishingly few" local planning authorities will be caught by the measure. But the most recent public assessment by DCLG showed that up to 10 authorities might face “measures” if performance against these criteria was not improved. 

These measures are of course in addition to the loss of local discretion that many authorities may have suffered as a result of not having a Local Plan compliant with the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in place by 1st April 2013. After this date, the presumption in favour of sustainable development fell into place in areas where local plans are either out-of-date or silent. In particular, if there is not sufficient land identified to meet housing needs for the next five years, there is every likelihood that some locally contentious sites will get a permission. Whilst some would say that this is an effective sanction against ineffective plan-making, others have emphasised that the effects on communities are likely to be irreversible. 

Yet it remains the case that many local Councillors are the most committed and enthusiastic advocates of effective planning. They have a vision for the place that they represent and they accept the obligations of office to do something about it. They deserve more congratulations and positive encouragement than they often receive.

So, who’d be a planning Councillor in such a demanding context? Who would put themselves through challenging training expectations to keep themselves abreast of ever-changing policy and guidance, exercise dutiful restraint so as not to pre-judge issues until decision day, assiduously weigh comments from the electorate with advice from their Officers, face criticism or sanction if they may be seen to delay progressing proposals, and handle an award of costs against their Authority if the Planning Inspectorate decide at Appeal that they have acted unreasonably? Yet it remains the case that many local Councillors are the most committed and enthusiastic advocates of effective planning. They have a vision for the place that they represent and they accept the obligations of office to do something about it. They deserve more congratulations and positive encouragement than they often receive. 

The RTPI recognises that Councillors play a critical role in ensuring a locally-accountable and transparent planning system. The RTPI supports the Planning Summer School, this year celebrating its 80th anniversary in Leeds between 6th & 9th September. The RTPI offers across England (and works with others across the UK) a Planning Aid service which, in particular, provides specialist support for Neighbourhood Planning. The RTPI also offers the Politicians in Planning Network (PIPA) and this has an Annual Conference. The 2013 Conference will be on Friday 25th October in Milton Keynes and Planning Minister Nick Boles MP is the keynote speaker. Thanks to funding from the Planning Advisory Service (PAS), places at the Conference are available for free and can easily be booked via the RTPI website: /events/events-calendar/2013/october/pipa-conference-2013/

About Andrew Matheson

Andrew Matheson is an RTPI Policy & Networks Manager which includes a responsibility for the RTPI Politicians in Planning Network (PIPA). Prior to the RTPI he worked in the field of housing for both housing associations and local authorities.