We often describe planning as being more of an art than a science, with decision makers required to take account of all relevant planning policies and material considerations, apply their judgement as to the weight that these often competing considerations should be given, and reach a decision that is properly informed, balanced and fair. It is not always an easy job! And few people will be more aware of this than planning committee clerks, whose job it is to document the decisions being made. So, for an insight into that decision making process, including what can sometimes be a tussle for Councillors between the heart and the head, we are delighted this month to have a guest blog from a former committee clerk, Alistair Bochel (yes, as with Hugh Bochel, who did a guest blog for us last year, he is also a relative of Maggie’s – she is working on getting everyone in her family to do a blog eventually!). Here are his reflections from 3 years in a planning committee clerk’s chair.
Heart versus head: some insights from a planning committee clerk
Sitting in on planning committee meetings during my time as a local authority clerk, I frequently found myself in the position of being the person in the room least invested in the outcome of the committee’s decisions. While I turned up ready to take a note of how proceedings unfolded, there was little else to involve me with the items for consideration.
In contrast, planning officers must take a professional opinion on whether an application accords with planning regulations and guidance, while applicants and agents will argue it is undeniable that their application is sound. Other members of the public attending will have their own opinions of a scheme too.
Councillors meanwhile have a tough task on their shoulders. Supposedly they must make decisions based on whether they agree with a planning officer’s recommendation that an application does, or does not, comply with planning regulations. In my neck of the woods however, I found this approach to decision-making was tempered by a cautious respect for the views of residents in a rural district which were typically hostile to development. Indeed many councillors chose the district as a home because of its rural character, and were unlikely to be thrilled by the prospect of further large developments. As one particularly blunt councillor put it to a Council meeting, ‘we are all Nimbys’.
Time and time again, this conflict between what was right in terms of planning law, and what was “right” for the District, was frequently at the forefront of decision-making. During one particularly tense meeting, a member of the public speaking against the recommended development of a busy road next to her children’s primary school burst into floods of tears. Her obvious distress about possible road safety and air pollution issues, which the planning officer had rejected as negligible, was almost immediately brought into sharp relief when the councillor sitting to her right turned towards the Chair with a dismissive look and mouthed “oh my God”. The application was refused in a tight vote and was greeted with a round of applause by the many residents who had turned out to watch.
Watching all this from the side lines, I learnt that impassive, impartial decision-making on such an emotive topic as planning was sometimes easier in principle rather than in practice. One new councillor, having finished his first session of planning training prior to sitting on committee, took our Head of Planning aside and wryly asked “so, why do they let us make these decisions?”
It certainly made for an interesting watch from the committee clerk’s chair.
Thanks for reading!
And our thanks to Alistair for sharing what a committee clerk sees. If we can be of any assistance with any planning matters, please visit www.auroraplanning.co.uk or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, to receive future blogs and updates by email, please click here.