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Who loves a planning committee?

By Charles Goode, doctoral researcher in urban and regional planning at the University of Birmingham.

The Planning Committee (Committee hereafter) forms an essential part of the decision-making process in planning, with local councillors discussing and voting on planning applications and local plans on the advice of professional planning officers. They can also be controversial with Policy Exchange Report (Airey and Doughty, 2020), suggesting that planning moves towards a ‘zoning’ system with politicians removed from the process of actually determining planning applications. However, it has been through attending Committee in Worcester for the past few months, while also writing up my PhD Chapters on Power, Politics and Governance in Planning, that I have really considered whether Committees are the best way to make decisions.

The Background: Battles in Committees in the ‘Faithful City’

A recent Committee discussion was absolutely riveting and full of high drama. It centred around the development of a block of six flats and three bungalows through demolishing a family home on a very attractive, suburban approach road. Councillors had previously passed a motion that they were 'minded to refuse' the application but, in this meeting, the developer threatened an appeal because the officer’s recommendation was ‘approval’, making a local (Conservative) councillor incredibly angry! 

Councillors narrowly defeated the motion to refuse the application (by one vote) but then approved it, voting along party lines. The Conservative councillor denounced the Committee as acting in a ‘perverse manner’, not ‘fit for purpose’ and being a ‘waste of time’ while letters to the Worcester News denounced the councillor as ‘cowardly’ and blaming the ‘wrong people’, i.e. planning officers rather than national government policy (Amos, 2020; Barnett, 2020a, 2020b)! Clearly, this Committee meeting was exceptionally tense and political but I am sure this sort of thing is replicated all over the country many times. This blog comes largely from observing the process and interviewing planners – I imagine being a councillor, planning officer, campaigner or developer may give different perspectives and the process must be challenging for all involved – but this blog aims to more independently weigh up the effectiveness of Committees.

The Limitations of Committees

Some argue that they are an inefficient and ineffective means of making complex decisions which should be left to the experts. One developer argued that planning applications should only be decided by planning officers[1], while other planners highlighted there should be much greater trust in experts to do their jobs as in other professions such as healthcare:

‘The planning system is so complicated and there can’t be many elements of public policy where you have a public policy but you ask public people, who know nothing about it… to engage with quite complex strategic and local issues’. (Private Sector Planner)

The Necessity of Politics in Planning

While the distrust of experts, especially planners, needs addressing, it is vitally important that the planning system has democratic legitimacy and public accountability (as the undermining of public confidence in post-war planning and subsequent Skeffington Report testify). There is also a pressing need to solve the housing crisis and ensure broader planning outcomes are in the public interest. For all their problems and all the political drama involved, Committees do give important transparency and legitimacy to planning and the question remains as to what better or other way this could be achieved.

Additionally, there are important constraints and checks / balances to Committees, including national planning policy, officers’ advice / recommendations, developer representation and the Examination of Local Plans / Appeals system. Conversely, local councillors are elected to represent communities so feel they have a right to have a ‘say’ and determine planning decisions, which often have local significant impacts. Consequently, are Committees, notwithstanding their significant limitations, on balance a positive thing, given the inevitability of politics in planning on one side and the fact that Committees give planning democratic legitimacy on the other? This private sector planner captures the crux of the matter:

‘(Politics is) inevitable really because planning is about people. It is about places…it is a fundamental part of planning because…it is only right that we, as humans, have a desire to protect where we live or we have agendas that we wish to put forward…politicians (generally) try and represent that view…people need to feel they have got representation’.

An (Ideally) Less Politicised Planning System

While planning is inevitably political, given the twin challenges of climate change and the housing crisis, it is important to consider ways it could become less politicised. An issue emerging strongly from my research is the lack of statutory, strategic regional planning since 2010. Arguably, this has further politicised planning because most decisions are made at a politicised local level while national government intervention in planning has increased. Indeed, the process of deciding which land is ‘zoned’ for development or not, as recommended by Policy Exchange, would still be very controversial (and political). As planners, we clearly need to think of ways that strategic planning can be rebuilt in England in a way that commands political support and public confidence – no mean task! However, decisions can be less politicised and taken for the long(er) term at a higher geographical level as this private sector planner explained:

‘Strategic planning is something the system needs…because when you are making big controversial decisions as members going back to the politics…in that district…it is very difficult to make difficult decisions.’

Ideally, strategic decisions would be taken regionally, like strategic growth sites or Green Belt reviews. Committees could move towards being a ‘shaper’ of development related to details like design, community facilities, type of housing etc. Crucially, a clear structure or hierarchy is needed to define which decisions are made at which level. Indeed, the Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS) ‘gave’ councils housing targets, meaning that councils could blame the RSS’s for difficult decisions and focus on other things. The challenge now is to ensure that revived regional planning can survive the political cycle and that its decisions / parameters are clear so that it does not become too ‘big’ (like the RSS’s).


Perhaps the cardinal issue is not so much whether Committees are inherently a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing as the level at which decisions are made and who makes them. Committees form an important part of the planning system but statutory strategic planning is needed to bring overall coordination and ensure that strategic decisions aremade at the right geographical level. This can only realistically come about with national government setting up a clear framework and system of governance. Meanwhile, we continue to work with the challenges of locally-led planning.  


Airey, J. and Doughty, C. (2020) Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century. London.

Amos, A. (2020) I’ll carry on fight for fairness, Worcester News. Available at: (Accessed: 10 February 2020).

Barnett, C. (2020a) Councillor Alan Amos calls for investigation into ‘biased’ and ‘not fit for purpose’ Worcester planning department, Worcester News. Available at: (Accessed: 10 February 2020).

Barnett, C. (2020b) Developer says council U-turn is a ‘victory for common sense’ in Worcester after threatening expensive appeal, Worcester News. Available at: (Accessed: 10 February 2020).

[1] Although he still acknowledged that politicians and the public should still be heavily involved in initial plan-making. 

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