At Cambridge City Council’s August 2008 North Area Committee Meeting Cllr Mike Todd Jones distributed the following statement which I am publicising as it will probably not be included in the minutes and is not currently available online:
I have decided not to make decisions on planning matters at Area Committees until sufficiently trained in planing law and subject to any application being free of any conflicts of interest.
The city council’s Liberal Democrat administration has decided to ‘delegate’ the responsibility for judging planning matters in local areas to Area Scrutiny Committees consisting of all the councillors and only those, who represent the area.
This ‘delegation’ can cause serious delays in the planning process. It can jeopardise the quality and objectivity of decisions, because it ignores possible lack of training, or inclination, and the risks associated with personal, local or political loyalty, of members who are being required to make decisions about their own areas; and it involves councillors in potential conflicts of interest, which are likely to make applicants mistrust the planning decisions made and the councillors who make them.
Guidance on ‘conflicts of interest’ says:
“If you have objected to a planning application as a ward councillor and do not have a personal interest of any kind, then you should … not speak and vote on the application. It is important that councillors approach planning applications with an open mind and are able to weigh all the arguments right up to the point at which a decision is made. If you make it clear that you have made up your mind to vote for or against an application before the meeting, regardless of the officer’s presentation and evidence and arguments on both sides, this could well leave the eventual decision open to legal challenge and/or a finding of maladministration.”
Councillors with ‘conflicts of interest’ must not make planning decisions. Area committees making such decisions put this principle at risk. In addition Labour councillors believe that electors might find it particularly difficult to believe that ‘political’ considerations do not affect the judgement of those councillors who hold an executive role within the council.
Only those who have been trained in planning law, and who are willing to restrain their personal or political interest in matters of concern in the area they represent, should make such decisions.
I am therefore able to act as an elected local representative, free to advise, support and speak on behalf of applicants or objectors but not to decide on planning decisions.
Guidence from the Department of Communities and Local Government supporting our decision is [below]. Guidance which we believe is particularly significant is in bold:
PLANNING ADVISORY SERVICE (APRIL 2006) AREA-BASED DECISION MAKING (ABDM) FOR DEVELOPMENT CONTROL: A REVIEW
This report provides a review of area-based decision-making based on interviews with senior planning ofﬁcers at authorities with area-based decision-making arrangements. It details issues that need to be resolved in order for authorities to meet the requirements of the new planning agenda. The report also includes a number of guidelines that authorities should follow to ensure that ABDM works well for development control.
Some 14% of English planning authorities currently use area-based decision making structures. ABDM is considered to be popular with the community and, with some
exceptions, is seen to bolster the role of ward members as community representatives. However, the research ﬁndings report that there are “serious concerns” about the system, for the following reasons:
- [it is] frequently cited as a reason why it is difﬁcult for authorities to meet their BVPI
109 targets to reduce the time it takes to process planning applications;
- [it is] associated with inconsistencies in planning decisions and questions about probity
in relation to competing pressures on councillors to be both impartial arbiters and community advocates; and
- [it is] more resource intensive than council-wide committees, although it can provide more opportunities for ofﬁcers to gain committee experience.”
The report makes the following recommendations:
- reduce the committee cycle times, to facilitate applications to be determined within the 8 or 13 week targets;
- amalgamate areas, if necessary, to produce agendas of reasonable length to complement increased frequency of meetings;
- avoid having all ward members sitting on the area committee, in order to allow some members to perform the representative role for local community interests;
- ensure that the scheme of delegation means that decisions are made at the appropriate level given the conformity of the proposal to the council’s policies;
- reduce or eliminate the right of call in or referral upward in order to improve BVPI 109 performance and encourage ownership of and responsibility for the decision made;
- reduce the number of committees to reﬂect the capacity of the ofﬁcers to adequately support the meetings;
- provide regular, robust and compulsory training for councillors sitting on planning committees, including reserve members; and
- keep the business of determining planning applications separate from other council business in the area committees, preferably at a separate meeting.
I understand Mr Todd-Jones’ dilemma. It is likely a good local representative would often be unable to impartially judge a planning application, they would reasonably be expected to have had had involvement with promotors and objectors and the wider community before the meeting at which the decision is to be made. I strongly oppose the suggestion in the guidance quoted by Mike Todd-Jones that councillors who make up their mind on a planning application before the planning meeting should not vote. In some cases the will of the people will be clear and elected representatives will want to make clear to their electorate in advance that they will be representing them, I see no problem with that. A councillor making their opinion and reasoning known before a planning meeting makes it possible for any constituents who disagree with their stance to enter a debate with them and lobby them. If I was in Mr Todd-Jones’ position I would ignore the guidance which I see as wrong and undermining local democracy. I would participate fully in planning process and associated debate both before and during the planning meeting. Planning decisions are not a judicial process, they are a democratic process.