#31. Revising the Planning System: What you see isn’t always what you get.


The first meeting of the most recent Task & Finish (‘T&F’) Groups to review Shropshire Council’s planning system in order to rationalise it – in the process reducing cost – met on Monday 17th October 2016. The most significant change will be a reduction in the number of planning committees IF the group listens to the evidence for such a move.

Whilst it was acknowledged in earlier ‘reviews’ that such a reduction cannot realistically be done without increasing the number of applications decided under delegated powers (where the final decision on a planning application is decided by a planning officer rather than a committee), given that taking a planning application to committee is eight times more expensive than having it decided by a planning officer, in terms of cost alone such a move would realise considerable savings.

Although that 17th October meeting was the first in this current T&F Group, it wasn’t the first to consider these issues. Two earlier T&F Groups have met, in 2013 and 2015.

The second review (July 2015) decided that as the adoption of Shropshire’s long-term planning policy document, the Site Allocations and Management of Development (SAMDev), had not then been concluded, the system could be reviewed more effectively six months after the signing-off of SAMDev, which happened in December 2015.

But why bother anyway?

Is a wheel being re-invented here? Comprehensive reports were produced on completion of the review in 2013 and nothing has changed in the interim – except to get worse, certainly as far as pressure on planning staff goes. Not only are there fewer of them since the round of voluntary redundancies a couple of years ago, the ones who are left and the new ones who have since joined find themselves being challenged by those ex-colleagues who took voluntary redundancy and went to work for the developers who are now challenging Shropshire Council on all fronts! (A situation likely to get worse, given the government’s determination to weaken controls on Green Belt in their push to meet housing developer’s demands for land that doesn’t come with the problems of brown-field sites – more work, less profit.

There are two main issues being addressed by this current review:

  • Reducing the number of planning committees from the current three down to two – or even one;

  • and whether to increase the percentage of delegated decisions to make that reduction practicable.

The two are closely linked, so it’s not a matter of ‘either/or’ but ‘how’ to both.

Increasing the number of delegated decisions would reduce the workload of committees in absolute terms –  travelling time and cost of coach hire to sites; time at committee, including lunchand reduce the amount of officer time and back-office resources needed to support committee activity, hence the 8:1 ratio of cost mentioned above.

There are a number of considerations that bear on each other.

Those considerations were, er, “considered” three years ago. Still, the thinking seems to be that if something’s worth doing it’s worth doing again.

The 2013 T&F group visited neighbouring Herefordshire to look at how their SINGLE planning committee of 19 elected Members worked – very well, actually, very well indeed. The Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Herefordshire Planning Committee told the Shropshire delegation that: “…the move to a single Committee had resulted in the public perception that decision making on planning matters was clear and consistent throughout the county.

Outside Birmingham, Shropshire is the largest Local Planning Authority (LPA) in the West Midlands. It is also one of the most rural counties in England, which poses logistical problems if:

  • the decision is to allow an application to be considered under delegated powers then the case officer needs to visit the site and,

  • an application has been passed for consideration by committee, getting elected members together for site visits and subsequently back to Shirehall for the actual committee meeting,.

It’s alright getting planning officers and elected Members together in one place at the right time, but of equal importance when considering the question of public perception of openness and transparency, local communities directly affected by a planning application will want to witness the committee’s deliberations and hear the planning and/or legal officer’s rulings on planning law and Shropshire Council’s local planning policies.

On the matter of Public Perception, the suspicion that all is not as kosher as it could be is recognised as a problem with the current set-up anyway, so any future committee system needs to meet the expectation that due process will be open in the generally accepted meaning of the word, not in the sense that some politicians define “open”. The concomitant of that is that representatives of a local community affected by a planning application would be expected to turn up and make their case in person, or at the very least turn up to bear witness.

So, precedents?

It wasn’t just Herefordshire that the 2013 T&F Group visited, they also looked at the geographically much smaller Telford & Wrekin (T&W), which also operates with a single planning committee.

It is interesting that whilst the rate of delegated decisions for the much larger Shropshire with its three committees was around 94%, the rate of delegation for Telford & Wrekin’s single committee was about the same. So how come the delegation rate for Herefordshire’s single committee was 98%?

Granted, that whilst Herefordshire is geographically smaller than Shropshire, it is nevertheless geographically similar and faces similar economic and rurality pressures to Shropshire.

It’s not as if there isn’t a precedent for a single planning committee in Shropshire. In 2009, immediately prior to the conversion from County to Unitary status and the setting up of the area planning committees, something called the ‘Interim Regulatory Committee’ was in place to consider planning applications across the county. Significantly, one of its distinguishing characteristics was observed to be:Enhanced objectivity when considering locally sensitive applications”. Surely an observation that makes a planning system based on a single planning committee an overriding imperative rather than just another option, especially if, as was observed at the time, that distinguishing characteristic had everything to do with its members being drawn from across the county.

My personal Road To Damascus.

I have argued in the past that local knowledge is needed in deciding planning applications, but (and it’s a hell of a ‘but’) the whole planning process is now so heavily regulated by statute in the form of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) that I have had to concede that planning decisions, regardless of local sentiment, cannot be other than wholly objective, guided by planning officer opinion in order to avoid handing to developers and their agents the grounds for challenge. Under those conditions, local opinion can now only ever serve as context.

It is inevitable that a single planning committee and any increase in the rate of delegation will be seen as: “…reducing the perceived democratic input into planning decisions (local decisions with local knowledge), and harmful to the reputation of the Council with Parish and Town Councils and the general public.I understand that view because it used to be mine. However…

It is down to Local Members to take a lead here and address through closer cooperation with their town or parish councils, either using their knowledge of the planning system (if they’ve bothered to turn up to planning briefings) and/or acting as conduit between their local community and the case officer to steer applications away from committee by determining whether (or by how much) a particular application is contentious enough to justify its being passed to committee.

One of the reports that came out of the 2013 review made the interesting point that a closer working relationship between the Local Member and planning officers “…allows for local issues to be considered in a non-confrontational arena, which in turn may provide a better outcome or resolution of community concerns.”

The same report (the authorship of which isn’t given on the print-out I’ve got) goes on to say that the Local Member is elected to represent all factions within their community ‘without fear or favour’. “What they are not there to do is to be the voice of the local Parish or Town Council, or Councils. Where there are controversial and/or complex applications which impact on the locality, the Local Member should advise and argue these with the planning decision makers – but perhaps should not be one themselves.

It later asked: Does Localism demand three committees?

the answer has to be “no”. If the aim of planning is to arrive at clear consistent decision making, then logically creating a core planning committee with a uniform membership should be able to deliver decisions which, if not viewed as “right” or “wrong” by the local communities, will at least be consistent, with any tendency to interpret policies in one way by one member, will (or should be) balanced by the tendency of another member to view the same policy in a different way.

The strengthened role of the Local Member should be able to resolve many local issues at an early stage in the application, or allow for local input at the stage at which the matter is considered by a single Committee.”

It goes on to state:

While there could be an immediate, temporary effect, there is nothing to suggest that a single committee would reduce planning confidence. Shropshire established a superior planning committee to deal with applications which were complex/controversial or where the Area Committee was minded to overturn officer recommendations. Decisions of this committee may have been questioned but this can happen with any planning committee. There is no evidence that the Strategic Planning Committee (see above) reduced public confidence in the overall system.”

The evidence from Herefordshire was that there was no concern from the public, from Parish and Town Councils or from Members, and no pressure from members for a reversion to the previous system of three committees.”

What clinched it for me was this (my emphasis in bold type):

The Herefordshire evidence suggests that a move from three committees to one IS possible, despite initial reservations from Members, and could potentially deliver significant benefits both in the better use of resources, and a better, more effective planning system, with integrity and consistency of decision making, combined with a greatly enhanced role for local members and local input, albeit in a different context.”

So, any object lessons? There is one that contains all the ingredients in the perfect mix of what can go wrong.

Perception is all.

Based on a principle that is a given for the (only just) trusting general public and a vain hope tempered with cynicism for journalists and professional observers, if you listen to local politicians, Local Authority planning departments have something in common with English Law, sharing the principle that: “Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done.”

Unfortunately for those who hold to that degree of faith, the difference is that in English Law, unlike planning law, that principle tends not to be tested to destruction by local politicians!

Cynicism can set in fast. The mere appearance of bias is sufficient to overturn the general public’s faith in a planning decision, despite the insistence of local politicians that their declaration of a pecuniary interest (whether or not an individual has an interest in an item under consideration from which they might profit) deflects accusations of corruption. Ah, if only.

Declarations of pecuniary interest might deflect a formal accusation (interestingly, the police tend to take them at face value because that’s all they can do, see blog #24), but watch the eyebrows of the general public go up when they hear or read of such declarations because they are seen as, at best, disingenuous. Perception again.

Whilst a formal declaration of pecuniary interest satisfies convention, what it doesn’t do is deflect suspicion of the lesser evils of bias, favouritism, or cronyism inherent in any grouping of members of the same political constituency association. And if that group happen also to be the overwhelming majority on a committee? Wow!

And therein lies the problem that has bedevilled all earlier planning reviews. No one wants to point the finger. (See also blog #27, The power of patronage.)

The object lesson.

One of Shropshire Council’s three current planning committees is made up of eleven members, ten Conservatives, one Independent. The North Planning Committee.

Back in 2013, an Outline Planning application was submitted to that committee and passed, subject to certain conditions being observed.

An application to vary one of the conditions went back to committee in October 2014, asking that the original condition of providing two access roads (west and south) be changed to one, south only. There were no objections to the variation from officers or statutory consultees (Highways, Environmental, etc).

Interestingly, with that level of support the application met the conditions that would not only have qualified it for a delegated decision according to the criteria laid down in the 2013 review, but that lack of contention actually makes it a candidate for delegation under the current guidelines. But it went back to committee. (See the actual planning reference given at the end of this blog.)

Further, as the application for variation was unanimously supported by the residents of the estate immediately neighbouring the site, a further qualifier for delegated decision was met – absolutely no contention.

NOTE: I need to go into a bit of boring detail here, but this particular case is an example of how prone to accusations of bias the current system is and how a single planning committee would guard against that.

The attraction of the south access alone was that it avoided the considerable cost of having to purchase the narrow strip of land on the western side of the development plot giving access to the roads of the neighbouring estate. Understandably, residents of that estate supported the application for the variation of conditions because removing that western access meant no increase in traffic flow past their houses.

NOTE: A narrow strip of land which needs to be purchased to gain access to a development plot is known as a ‘ransom strip’. It is a legitimate, commercial practice.

The applicants had the support of the planning officers, the statutory consultees and the residents of the neighbouring estate, they were expecting the variation of that condition to go through without a problem. It didn’t. The committee refused the application for the variation of conditions but it is important to remember that in doing so they did everything by the book.

Unfortunately for the reputation and good standing of the Shropshire planning system there was a particular, very salient, fact that cast a shadow over the outcome, giving rise to allegations of ‘political interference’, allegations that would be unlikely, if not impossible, to make under a single planning committee system.

Regular readers of this blog will know that the ransom strip in question was owned by a local company. One of the partners in that company just happened to be the Leader of Shropshire Council, which just happened to be the Local Planning Authority whose decision over whether to allow that development to take place would make the owners of that ransom strip a lot richer. (See blog #1.)

Now, when you’re talking about “perception” you’re acknowledging the importance of not only being clear about what you’re doing but clear about why you’re doing it, there is no room for leaving your actions open to misunderstanding if you want your actions to pass what Private Eye calls the “whiff test”, critically important when one of – if not the most important – considerations in the process of introducing change is whether or not it increases, or at the very least maintains, public confidence in whatever you’re changing.

The outcome of that application for variation, and the processes that led up to it, was a formal complaint made to Shropshire Council alleging “political interference” which was passed immediately to the police. Everyone on the “defence” side was interviewed but none of the parties making the complaint which, unfortunately, rendered it barely an “investigation” in the generally accepted sense of the word. Assurances that declarations of pecuniary interest had been made were evidenced by the minutes of the committee meeting, so that’s alright then.

End of? If only.

The ‘whiff’ that came off the public perception of that planning case persists, despite, or because of, statements along the lines of: “We’ve done all we can and can’t influence the way people think.”

Maintaining confidence in the planning process is paramount, especially now, whilst all the processes of local governance are under threat from the creeping influence of central government, and ‘localism’ has proved to be the chimera it always promised to be.

If there ever was a time when the planning system, the most sensitive operation in local government, had to present an open front it is now.

The planning process has to be transparent and open. If it says that on the tin then it has to be what it says on the tin, not a can of worms.

PS: I’ll consider the devilish details of the changes in a following blog, because there is a balance to be achieved between giving an already stretched planning department more applications to consider and “sharing the load” with planning committees. But remember that 8:1 ratio of cost? Time and stretched resources account for that. Think on.

Incidentally the details of the referenced planning application, should you wish to apprize yourself of them, are here:

The initial application for Outline Planning Permission…


And the variation of condition…