I can’t now remember when I first noticed mysociety. It was probably some link to the now defunct service provided by planningalerts. They are a talented bunch of people doing good work. Anyway, I’ve lurked silently on their mailing for something approaching a decade or so. Recently they’ve announced a new thing called SayIt which describes itself as a free, opensource way of bringing transcripts to the web. (here is a demo using Leveson Inquiry)
Why should we in the planning community care ? Well, it’s for two reasons. The first is that when SayIt has sorted out national government and Hansard, local government and a local Hansard will follow. And the second is that planning committees are likely to be one of the first bits to really be put under the spotlight. Our planning committees are probably going to be reported verbatim. And these verbatim records will be used by people who don’t like particular planning decisions to introduce challenge, cost and delay. When I think of some of the things I’ve heard people say at committee I shiver.
Slightly star-struck I had a chat with mysociety earlier today, and reflecting on it a bit here is how I see it (exaggerating a few points along the way for emphasis)
The nature of the task
Just to cover off some basics, and putting aside the Mayor, secretary of state and the planning inspectorate. And the many thousands of Town & Parish groups who convene to carry out some planning purposes.
Planning committees are mostly about making decisions on planning applications. They sometimes do some other stuff (like have opinions about other planning committees planning applications, or hear from developers about their longer-term plans).
Almost every council has a planning committee. That makes about 360-odd district councils, about 15 county councils. Then there are things that are “planning authorities” that don’t match council boundaries. These include national parks, and joint arrangements agreed between councils. Then there are the LPAs who do one particular thing (like North London Waste or the Olympics). Within a local planning authority area there is local discrection about how to organise things. Some have regional committees, others have a “standard” and “strategic” committee. Some meet fortnightly, most 3- or 4-weekly. In round numbers: 400 authorities running 500 committees meeting 15 times per year = 7500 committees / year.
So, planning committees are convened to make planning decisions, but most only make a tiny fraction of those issued by the planning authority. Most are made by planning officers acting under delegated authority. It varies a bit, but it’s something like 5% of applications go to committee and 95% don’t. To be heard by committee the application needs to satisfy the planning equivalent of a “public interest” test (impact, local objections etc).
It’s not the minutes of a meeting
Planning committees look like many other meetings conducted by councillors. But there is an important difference that might not look obvious at first. Many committees hear evidence, ask questions and make decisions. But the decisions made by planning committees are formal “Planning Decision Notices”. The work of crafting these things happens elsewhere. But it means that the focus is on the decision (and some aspects of the development itself) rather than the debate or the process of arriving at a decision. And this purpose is reflected in the minutes. For example, my local committee records only the points made by people addressing the committee, including points made under questioning from committee members (but not the questions themselves). And it doesn’t record individual votes – the decisions are made by the collective (School Governors will know what this means).
It’s not democratic
One of the hopes, perhaps, of making this stuff come alive is that more people will participate in the process. However planning is not a numbers game. It doesn’t matter whether a petition has 5 names or 5000 names it either makes valid points about the merits (or otherwise) of a scheme or it doesn’t. A ward councillor who sits on a committee has to act in the best interest of the planning authority, not their constituents.
This for me is one of those deep, grumbling concerns. What does more effective citizen participation in this process look like ?
It’s not political
Planning committees are made up of politically mixed councillors who are not “whipped” into voting along party lines.
Councillors are doing a difficult job. Sometimes they are new to it. Sometimes the type of development proposed is difficult to comprehend. Stuff happens in the meeting as people talk and possibly new information is presented. This means that on occasion councillors say things that would get them into trouble down the line. This translates into challenge (via JR) and a reduced ability to make development decisions that stick.
I suppose you can reconcile yourself to some of this along these lines:
- Planning must be transparent to make it equitable
- More transparency will punish the weak but help the competent
- Ultimately we get a better bunch of people doing the job
It’s probably just as likely that no elected member will want to touch planning as it means mediating between highly motivated people in opposition to each other where every utterance could come back to haunt you. That said, this is no additional risk to councils that already podcast their committees. However in practice it would have to be a very angry person indeed to sit through such a podcast (and there isn’t an industry of ambulance chasers searching on particular phrases offering to undo decisions for people).
There is perhaps, somewhere in this, some good news for planning authorities. What if SayIt could record for posterity the promises made by applicants ? What if these could be discoverable by other planning committees ? What if this record could be used to genuinely engineer trust (where it was due) and suspicion where promises about jobs and timescales had been shown to be false elsewhere ?
This would be good, and chimes with the work that other people may be doing on the question of “how can you make developers develop ?”. Anything we can do to elevate the work of a planning committee beyond the issuing of permits and into the brokering of agreements on what happens where, when and how.
Next steps ?
For most of us it’s a case of wait and watch. Universal coverage entered into and maintained by planning authorities themselves feels like a decade or more away. But surprisingly soon it may be that some of the more contentious schemes in areas populated by civic activist wonks are laid bare. And as a minimum you should think about your approach to it. Allow it ? Prohibit it ? I suspect I know which way our SoS would have us go.