Need for Elected Member Training

by Robert Gillespie






Thoughts on the process involved in Planning Committees reaching decisions on planning applications. The need for elected member training

I dread to count the number of planning committees which I have attended having witnessed what can only be described as “palm tree justice”.  Not all my clients’ applications I’m pleased to say, but typically those which have generated local objection, media attention and the obvious sympathetic support from leading members of planning committees.

The more frustrating is where there has been local pre-application consultation, say a local exhibition with attendance by highways and drainage engineers, planners and developer, where the scheme has taken on-board thoughts and ideas, but where subsequently favourable recommendations are still over-turned at the planning committee as a consequence of local objection.

I’ve been attending planning committees across the nation since 1979. What is now becoming increasingly apparent is the obvious lack of training which many elected members sitting in committees have had. This is a serious failing of local government practice. Planning is a far more sophisticated discipline than in the past. It is the subject of much greater scrutiny and public awareness and, dare I say it, is now over-politicised.

Coupled with this, is the sheer cost in the research, preparation and submission of planning applications, for even simple, relatively modest schemes. The “front-loading” of planning applications with surveys, researched reports and impact assessments, was essentially intended to enable a swifter consideration of applications once registered. This often follows what many now believe to be an increasingly unreliable pre-application process in terms of delay, cost and quality of advice from the authority. The advice is also frequently incomplete in key subject areas.

At the point of reaching the committee therefore most applicants will have responded to matters raised, submitted revised proposals, further information, clarification leading to a favourable recommendation. There then follows the “complete lottery” (as once described to me by a very experienced developer), of the committee – particularly where there is local objection.

At this point you are reliant on whatever the officer presenting the item says and does in describing the scheme, addressing consultation responses and, in anticipating objections. While some may feel that the three-minute presentation available to applicants or their agents is of assistance, often that is eclipsed by several rounds of individual objectors – each with three minutes, then say the parish council and ward member. The applicant is seemingly now on trial. For that is how this comes across – guilty until proved innocent with the committee more interested in accommodating local objection than enabling a fair, even-handed consideration of the merits of the application, in the light of the officer recommendation. Member discussion is often weakly chaired and led, officer advice regarding matters raised either ignored or not volunteered. Even minor points requiring simple clarification often remain unanswered.

The applicant in this process is as much the customer (having paid a planning application fee), as the local resident, yet the committee’s more obvious concern is to attend almost entirely to the matters raised by local objectors. As political representatives this is of course understandable, however what is increasingly clear, is that the duty of committee members to serve the entire community and not just those in the vicinity of the application site, is frequently forgotten.

This duty is the subject of very clear national guidance. It is currently the subject of national Planning Practice Guidance paragraph:016 Reference ID: 21b-016-20140306 under the sub-heading: How must elected councillors and other members of the local authority consider planning applications?

This makes clear the need for members to represent the interests of the whole community and for them to maintain an “open mind” when considering planning applications. Importantly members are advised that in making decisions on applications they must:

“do so in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise. Members must only take into account material planning considerations, which can include public views where they relate to relevant planning matters. Local opposition or support for a proposal is not in itself a ground for refusing or granting planning permission, unless it is founded upon valid material planning reasons.” 

We then enter what is the very grey area of pre-determination and pre-disposition when members of a planning committee may have already expressed opposition to, or support for, an application.  Section 25 of the Localism Act 2011 enables a member of the planning committee to participate in a decision on a matter which they have previously expressed a view or campaigned on. The national PPG advises:

“Members may campaign and represent their constituents – and then speak and vote on those issues – without fear of breaking the rules on predetermination. Members may also speak with developers and express positive views about development…..Members must not have a closed mind when they make a decision…at the point of making a decision, members must carefully consider all the evidence that is put before them and be prepared to modify or change their initial view in the light of the arguments and evidence presented. Then they must make their final decision at the meeting with an open mind based on all the evidence”    [Paragraph: 018 Reference ID: 21b-018-20140306]

Having attended many planning committees, it is immediately obvious that local planning authorities have their own procedures for dealing with this very difficult subject. Some for instance, do not permit the local ward member on the planning committee to speak and vote on any application which has been the subject of a previous expression of objection or support. Some allow members in such circumstances to speak but then not vote.

What is also apparent is that many committees’, members do not enter into the debate with an “open mind” and have, on occasion, even brought into the committee pre-prepared written grounds for refusal. Others enter the committee room opening (for the first time) the envelopes containing their agendas.

What is however the most obvious indication of predetermination, occurs when applications are being considered in the presence of a large number of objectors in the public gallery. Recent experience of this was made worse by the Chair allowing the audience to applaud the objectors’ presentations and then the successive rounds of speeches made in support of the objectors, by members of the planning committee. A less impartial “open minded” procedure could not have been experienced.  So far as I was concerned the entire committee’s consideration was used to simply “grandstand”. Not one word of censure from the Chair, Vice-Chair or officers, including those from legal services.

In that case, the officers also failed to defend their recommendation of approval or warn of the potential vulnerability of their authority to an award of costs at appeal. The lack of intervention by senior officers was very concerning as members simply echoed the objectors’ often misinformed opinions, and repeated factual errors before taking the decision.

I have raised the role of officers in guiding, steering or intervention in committees, with officers in various authorities.  Some are clearly invited to assist in matters of clarification, others however are under instruction not to intervene. Once the officer has reported the application and made the recommendation, further assistance is not welcomed. Most do not publicly refer to the prospects for success in defending against applications for awards of costs, should refused applications end up at appeal.

For the applicant the entire experience can be highly distressing as the quality of member discussion can often be extremely poor without professional guidance and intervention from officers. The whole process appears to many entirely arbitrary with little or no understanding of the scale of cost associated with the planning application process and potential additional delay and financial resource necessary to take the matter to appeal. There is also a perception held by some committee members, that objectors should be “allowed to have their day in court” through forcing the matter to appeal or worse still – let an Inspector or the Secretary of State take the blame for a decision to permit a locally unpopular development.

The conclusion is that the often-parlous way in which some planning committees behave toward locally controversial applications leads to unnecessary appeals, an extremely poor image of the planning process, considerable wasted public and private financial resources and of course delay – often in delivering much needed housing.

Elected member training, to say the least, now needs to be an essential requirement of all local planning authorities. Presently there is no nationally applied training for councillors. Some authorities do undertake training, however for most it appears a very patchy, low key and an often poorly attended “exercise”. So long as this critically important point in the whole application process remains so poor and vulnerable to nothing short of abuse, the planning system will not improve, no matter how many revisions are made to the National Planning Policy Framework.

It would be worth researching the number of appeals in cases of overturned recommendations which have resulted in awards of costs against local planning authorities and what those costs are annually amounting to. I am also aware that in one authority the suggestion was made that in reporting appeal decisions, awards of costs against that authority ought to be similarly reported to members. The response from that authority’s  director was that “it wouldn’t be popular with the members”. No such reports were therefore made.