I attended a planning workshop in Melton Mowbray yesterday. It was wrongly named, because there was no work done by those attending, just a lot of listening, with a smattering of heckling. The purpose of this ‘workshop’ was to give elected members, from East Midlands councils, some insight into the planning reforms introduced by the National Planning Policy Framework, or NPPF for short.
Although I already knew that this has always been an issue, I was nevertheless disappointed to hear members confirm their lack of understanding when it comes to the origins of the planning policies used to determine planning applications. Two members, in particular, displayed a lack of understanding about the status of the document we are all being encouraged to work our socks off to produce by April 2013 – the Local Plan.
The first councillor, who admitted she was a new councillor and therefore the planning system, made what I considered an extraordinary and rather damning statement in respect of member training at her council, it went something like this. ‘I don’t think members actually make any decisions when it comes to planning applications, they just ratify what the officers have recommended in the report’. One of the speakers did his best to put her right, but unfortunately was prevented from saying what I was thinking, ‘Madame you are clueless and worse still, clearly incompetent when it comes to serving on a planning committee’.
A second member raised his hand to speak and despite this being a Q&A session, uttered the words that always make my heart sink – ‘It’s just a comment really’. Such opening lines are then normally followed by an irrelevant anecdote, or a claim that his or her council is doing what has said is good good practice, but with bells on. This particular gentleman, didn’t offer either of these, just a criticism that demonstrated his complete lack of ownership, when it comes to the policies being used to determine planning applications in his council. His complaint, was that officers were able to make planning decisions using delegated authority, rather than applications going to committee. He then went on to criticise the lack of any reference to the democratic process in the presentations and that state that councillors are there to represent the people. He clearly felt that having to approve a planning application, when local people had objected, just wasn’t right! The existence of a Local Plan, that made the application acceptable, didn’t seem to matter.
Finally, a very interesting comment came from a speaker who was an elected member from Birmingham. He was lamenting his colleagues practice of making site visits, often to stare at some innocuous residential extension, that was perfectly acceptable and completely in conformity with their Local Plan. Even though he said he enjoyed planning, he doesn’t do it at his council anymore!
These comments, along with several other, ‘Its just a comment really’ contributions, combined with the general tenor of members questions and heckles, confirmed my worst fears. These members have not made the link between the Local Plan they and their fellow councillors have created, the planning decisions made by their officers using delegated authority and the decisions made by members at their planning committee. Put another way, the Local Plan doesn’t belong to them.
Why Bristol? Well that’s where our beloved Planning Inspectorate is based. It is from here that, the DCLG Minister, ‘General’ Eric Pickles, coordinates his army of planning inspectors, charged with confronting the hordes of elected members rejecting planning applications with gay abandon and all under the banner of local democracy and dare I suggest, Localism.