Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Planning decisions at area committees

Richard Taylor in the comments has asked me to post my reasons for not voting on planning applications at Area Committees, so this seems like a good opportunity.

Firstly, some history. Around 2003/4, the Liberal Democrats running the City Council setup Area Committees, ostensibly to bring decision making closer to local communities, and encourage community involvement. As part of setting up these committees, they decided that planning applications significant enough to be decided by Councillors rather than Council officers, but not having City wide significance were to be decided at these committees.

It is difficult to come up with a good argument that says the area committees are a sensible use of Council resources. It is rare that more than about 15 members of the public turn up at East Area Committee, frequently outnumbered by Councillors, Council staff and others on the public payroll – the extra costs (staff etc) of running these committees in 2004 were estimated to be £100,000 per annum (Scribbles on back of envelope, 4 committees, 6 meetings per year, generously 30 members of the public in each, average cost per meeting per member of the public engaged - £138 – can you see why I am outraged at the costs?) Whilst much of the debate at these meetings is useful, many of the members of the public present are already very empowered to communicate with their local Councillors (resident association officers, local Council candidates from various political parties etc), and rather than empowering more people, it is possible that these meetings actually further relegate the views of those not currently engaged in local decision making process – i.e. the literally 99.9% of the population of East area that chose not to turn up to these meetings.

But deciding planning applications at these meetings isn’t just a waste of money, it is actively damaging the quality of planning decisions made by the Council for the following reasons:

  • Regardless of training offered, the average experience of planning law and policies amongst members of area committees is significantly below that of the main planning committee, and indeed shortly after the local elections, Councillors on area committees were asked to make what are quasi-legal decisions with no training or experience at all.
  • All Councillors on the main planning committee should have an active interest in planning, as opposed to Councillors who may be more interested in other aspects of the Council’s work.
  • Decisions made after 10pm at night by people who will likely have been working all day cannot be as well considered as those made at a more sensible time.
  • During the working day at the Guildhall, the full planning committee can call on expert officers where necessary, e.g. tree experts etc to help clarifying points before making decisions.
  • The main planning committee meetings monthly, Area committees every 8 weeks, frequently making it hard for Area committee decisions to be made within the target timescales, costing the Council money and risking immediate appeals for non-determination as happened with Mill Road Tescos.

All good reasons why making planning decisions at area committees is a disaster. But for me there is an overwhelming reason why I refuse to take part. The current planning system does not permit those deciding to ‘pre-determine’ applications – they must keep an open mind until the meeting when the decision is made, and those who, in the jargon, have ‘fettered their discretion’ cannot then take part in the decision.

And it is this aspect of the situation which means I refuse to take part in planning application decisions, so that when local residents contact me, I am free to let them know my opinion on an application, and offer my full help to oppose or support an application if applicable. Yes, I could just refuse to take part in those applications for which this scenario happens, but I wouldn’t want my constituents (or indeed anyone in the City) to be reluctant to contact me about a planning matter, knowing that by default I couldn’t even let them know what I thought about the application.

This issue got heated at the time of the Mill Road Tesco refrigeration application – with letters to the paper criticising those, like myself, who refused to vote on the application (even though I did speak at the meeting to raise my concerns). I think the concerns were more that Councillors hadn’t put aside all other considerations and voted to oppose Tesco, but it didn’t stop the Lib Dems passing a shabby motion at full Council trying to bully all members of the Council into supporting their policy on planning decisions at area committees.

I was elected this year on the following manifesto pledge:

“Conservatives will scrap the area committee system. The fiasco of the Tesco application on Mill Road showed how the planning system is in chaos, and how the area committees are incapable of taking decisions. This is an experiment that has failed. We will look at how resident’s participation can be made more effective and move to timely meetings of a full planning committee.”

I will continue to campaign for a change to the Council’s deeply misguided current policy, and in order to best represent my constituents interests, I will refuse to take part in Area Committee planning decisions.


Ruth said...

Hi Chris,
Actually, the criticism of councillors not voting at the last Tesco-related vote was nothing to do with the anti-Tesco campaign, it was all (if I remember correctly) non-Tesco-related outrage about the fact that only two out of twelve councillors voted. Given the terms in which the vote was reported by the CEN, their reaction isn't surprising!

Personally, I think there are many reasons why the area committeees are a good thing. The main one, as far as planning goes, is that it provides a chance for local people to be heard in a system that is weighted almost overwhelmingly in favour of developers. As I understand them, the decisions that go to area committees are ones that would otherwise be decided by officers, not the planning committee. As I'm sure you know, officers have extremely strong incentives to simply tick the approval box and move on to the next application, rather than consider it neutrally. This is not (necessarily) a reflection on the planning officers themselves, it is the consequence of a system that only permits applicants, not opponents, to appeal decisions, combined with a series of council targets for planning decisions (presumably set by central government). In a structure where planning officers are told that they have to ensure that a certain percentage of decisions are made within 8 weeks, that no more than a certain percentage of appeals can be allowed against their decisions, and when they know that only applicants can appeal, the pressure is always going to be to approve. Scrutiny in public and by councillors rather than target-driven officials is an important counterweight to that.

If all the decisions now made by the area committees were going to be made by the planning committee then I might be more inclined to agree with you, but they won't be - and if they were then that would greatly increase planning committee costs.

Chris Howell said...

Hi Ruth,

You may be wrong here - I will try to check, but I think that the same test is applied for which applications are decided by officers regardless of whether they would go to Area committees or the main planning committee, so if there weren't area committees, all such applications would go to the main committee. In any case, Councillors can request any application is decided by committee rather than officers if they think it is of public interest, so this gets round a lot of you concerns (as has indeed happened with one of my Labour colleagues and the current plans for some minor alterations to a shop in Coleridge proposed by a certain large groceries vendor that would doubtless otherwise have been decided by officers).

There is much the Council could do to improve planning decisions and help local people get more involved - e.g. the planning department being more accessible in terms of location(s) and opening hours, and having the main planning committee meeting into the early evening to allow more public representation on controversial decisions, and/or beefing up the role of development control forums and also holding them in the evening.

There could be a useful role for much slimmed down area committees - meeting less frequently, and concentrating on scrutinising local policing, and spending s106 funds/environmental improvements. I am sure the current frequency is dictated by the timescales of planning applications, and we turn up every 8 weeks to decide a couple of hundred pounds of grants, and be updated on how lamentable the Council has been at progressing s106 spending and environmental improvements. There could also be a petition mechanism for local residents to summon their Councillors to a local meeting to discuss any particularly contentious issues.

On planning more generally, the whole system is broken in my opinion (another reason I don't like to make planning decisions - I strongly object to a number of planning policies that I would be forced to judge applications against) - with policies and plans forced on local residents from on high, e.g. for housebuilding targets, and local residents views an afterthought. The Conservatives are talking about removing much of the top down planning policies, which should give local people much more of a say on how their local areas develop, and ensure developers plans are much more in line with local opinion, but it remains to see how deliverable such aspirations would be.

Anonymous said...

> The main planning committee meetings monthly, Area committees every 8 weeks, frequently making it hard for Area committee decisions to be made within the target timescales, costing the Council money and risking immediate appeals for non-determination as happened with Mill Road Tescos.

This is factually incorrect; the non-determination got triggered because *officers* failed to produce adequate reports in time, such that the NMRT then had to complain and get the incomplete reports withdrawn. The fact this was East Area rather than Planning is irrelevant here.

Chris Howell said...

Hello Anonymous,

Bit of a moot point rather than a factual issue - what exactly was it that caused Tesco to appeal on the grounds of non-determination? The fact that the officers presented a report that had seriously failed to address some of the objections (which with all credit to NMRT caused the report to be re-written and the meeting delayed) was only one part of the story of the delay - I would still maintain that if the main planning committee, operating on a monthly meeting schedule, was to have decided the application it would have been put to committee more promptly (we would have reached the problem with the officer report more sooner) and Tesco may not have appealed on the grounds of non-determination. But it is all water under the bridge now as that particularly application (for the store extension) was turned down on public enquiry anyway...