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Career development: Working with politicians

Speech bubbles

Half of planners are employed by local government and work with elected councillors from day to day. Relations can be tense, says Mark Smulian, but understanding a politician’s priorities can ease the path to effective working

Planners and councillors are very different animals, but they must work together.

If planners apply policies correctly and make cogent recommendations to planning committee members, all will usually be well.

But there are times when it won’t, usually because councillors have their local community breathing down their necks against (or occasionally in support of) an application.

Politicians are preoccupied with being re-elected, or with their party holding their seat. Thus their priorities differ from those of planners.

Planners may wonder why councillors oppose a recommendation solidly grounded in law and policy, while councillors will wonder how willing planners would be to defend such a decision in front of several hundred angry people in a public meeting.

Sometimes it will be impossible to reconcile these positions, but it may help if each is able to imagine life in the other’s shoes.

From both sides

Tessa CoombesThe few people who have been both planners and councillors are perhaps best placed to understand the tensions.

Tessa Coombes (left), a planner who was a Labour councillor in Bristol from 1994 to 2002, says: “It can be a difficult balance. When I was on the planning committee I would regularly see new councillors who would act as ward representatives, which is not the role of a member of a planning committee.

“Sometimes you would see councillors obviously swayed by public opinion, including by people shouting from the gallery. I felt a lot paid lip service to the planning criteria, but were thinking more about the public outside. There was not enough training for councillors, and a lot did not know what issues they were supposed to take into account.”

Things to remember

1 Councillors ultimately answer to voters and may therefore take positions that appear perverse to planners;

2 Put information before councillors without bias for or against an application;

3 Don’t frame any warning over appeal costs as a threat to councillors’ independent decision-making; and

4 Remember, councillors can be ‘predisposed’ without being ‘predetermined’.

Officers tended to bring decisions to Bristol’s planning committee when the arguments were finely balanced or there was significant public controversy.

Coombes recalls: “There can be things that hit all the legal criteria but which are going to cause trouble with the public, and officers often seemed surprised by that, whereas the councillors would think ‘We could have told you that’.”

She feels joint training sessions might be useful “so that officers understand political problems; things may sound like ‘Nimby’ objections, but they are not always that. But it’s usually just training for councillors in planning rules.”

Andrew Close RTPIAndrew Close (left), head of careers and professional development at the RTPI, says planners must ensure that planning committee members have the full range of information they need before them for a decision and “it should be information you can defend”.

"Planners should be mindful of the local political context"

“Planners should be mindful of the local political context, but decisions on planning have to be in the context of rules even where local politicians are under pressure from constituents.”

From the front line

Ian Briggs is both a senior fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies and in the thick of planning battles over residential development as chair of Long Itchington Parish Council, Warwickshire.

He thinks planners should be aware of the impact of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) on councillors’ attitudes to what they see as unsuitable development.

“There is a tension in local government planning between the professionals and the representatives, and that tension has been heightened by the NPPF, which allows developers to build almost wherever they like in places that do not have local plans, which is most of them, regardless of the community’s wishes.”

Briggs argues that planners must be aware of the conflicting priorities of the multiple interests with which they engage.

“Planners have to deal with stakeholders including statutory consultees, the local community and the commercial development industry and they all have different interests,” he says.

“How do planners marshal all those conflicting interests? You don’t always get the best decision by sticking to the letter of the law.”

Predisposed or predetermined?

Before the Localism Act 2011 few things caused more resentment among councillors than the rule on predetermination in planning, which held that if councillors campaigned against an application they could not then vote on it as they had ‘predetermined’ their view in what is supposed to be a quasi-judicial process of weighing evidence.

The act loosened this so that a councillor can indicate a view but not an immovable one. They can be ‘predisposed’, so might say: “From what I have heard I would oppose this application.”

But they may not ‘predetermine’ by saying: “This application is awful and I will reject it no matter what.”

Briggs says: “If a councillor is elected by a community to promote a particular view it is difficult for them to go against the community’s interest, whatever planners say.

“In Long Itchington we have nine live applications which could, if granted, increase the number of homes from 900 to 3,000.

“When we open the community centre for developers to display their nice-looking drawings, planners always tell us to be careful about predetermination and that we shouldn’t appear to have organised the community against them, but we do what we think is right.”

Close says the change over predisposition, “should lead to better decisions as it means that if there is strong public feeling which translates into a planning issue, it can be raised earlier in the process and taken into account so long as a councillor has not closed their mind”.

Codes of conduct

1 RTPI members are covered by its code of conduct. For councillors there is no longer a national one, but local ones are normally modelled on that suggested by the Department for Communities & Local Government.

2 The Local Government Association and Planning Advisory Service published in 2013 Probity In Planning, aimed at both officers and councillors.

3 In general these codes are based on the seven principles of the Committee on Standards in Public Life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

The cost of democracy?

Antagonism can arise when planners warn councillors that rejecting an application could lead to an appeal, with substantial legal costs were the council to lose.

Planners feel they are simply doing their job by giving such advice, but councillors can feel pressured into going against their judgement of what constituents want.

Coombes sometimes felt planning officers used costs to bully councillors into supporting applications.

“A lot of councillors do not have the strength of character to argue that against officers,” she says.

Briggs argues that councillors may see costs as a price worth paying for democracy – a point possibly lost on planners.

“If a council has taken a democratic decision it believes is reasonable but is then taken to appeal that can be very expensive and time-consuming, so there is a cost to democracy. But is democracy on planners’ agendas, rather than just the costs?” Briggs asks.

“Councillors on a planning committee will be under pressure from appeal costs and from other councillors worried about how much the council is spending.”

Close says talk about ‘bullying’ is “perhaps the language of politicians, but as a professional you have to put the evidence and stand your ground.

“It is part of a planner's job to make clear the consequences of decisions, which must be made on planning grounds. The law does allow councils to reject recommendations, but of course there can be consequences as it also allows applicants to appeal.” Generally councils should not be at risk of costs if policy and procedures are followed”.