Who decides what’s built in your community?

Should local planning decisions be taken by professional officers or elected councillors?

Earlier this month the Leader of a London Borough decided to reduce the role his fellow councillors play in determining planning applications.  Jas Athwal, Leader of the newly elected Labour administration in Redbridge, decided – along with his fellow Cabinet members – to get rid of local area planning committees that had previously decided the fate of hundreds of planning applications every year.  Instead, a central Regulatory Committee with Borough-wide scope will consider a smaller number of planning applications, with the rest determined by Redbridge’s Planning Officers under delegated powers.

At first glance, this might seem like a strange decision for an elected representative to take, but it is neither as radical, nor as undemocratic, as it might initially seem.  In every local authority across the country most planning applications (whether for home extensions, individual new-builds or change of building use) are determined by planning officers without ever being discussed before a committee.  The applications are publicised in the local community and anyone has the right to comment on, or object to them, but the decision is not taken in a democratic forum.

However, for large scale and/or controversial applications, the normal course of events is for the plans to go before a committee of elected councillors to decide.  The qualifying criteria for committee involvement vary from one local authority to another, but the procedure is the same in all instances: the application is publicised; the community, local and statutory stakeholders can comment; planning officers make their recommendation; and the application is considered, debated and decided upon by a committee of local councillors.

There are pros and cons to both processes: planning officers are qualified professionals who understand planning policy and are actively involved in preparing the Local Plan (the development framework) for the whole of their local authority; local councillors may have a clearer understanding of the areas they represent and benefit from an electoral mandate from the local populace.  In simplistic terms, officers bring professional rigour to their decisions; committees bring democratic openness to the process.  Opposition to officer-made decisions often comes from local objectors, who bemoan an ‘inherent lack’ of democracy, while opposition to committee-made decisions often comes from developers, who bemoan an ‘inherent lack’ of accountability or professionalism.

This is an issue that goes to the heart of the national debate on planning and is the subject of a constant stream of mixed messages from government.  On the one hand, successive Planning Ministers have trumpeted the removal of burdensome red-tape, designed to make the planning process simpler (let’s ensure the professionals can make the right decisions and quickly), whilst on the other the Secretary of State in exactly the same department (DCLG) continues to promote Localism and the role that local communities should play in determining applications (let’s ensure that local communities control what happens in their backyard).

In Redbridge, Jas Athwal has come down clearly on the side of allowing the professionals to decide what’s best.  Whilst there is a great deal of merit in this choice, it is still a controversial one, and it’s interesting to note that it was taken very early in the electoral cycle.  It remains to be seen whether his fellow councillors, and the constituents who voted for them, will agree it was the right one.

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