#34. Contention Rules, OK.


This blog follows on from #31, Planning. What you see isn’t always what you get – unfortunately.

I started that blog by saying:

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.”

They didn’t listen, so ‘obviously’ – based on the outcome – they either completely ignored or at best reviewed and didn’t give much, if any, consideration to the reports from the 2013 Planning Task & Finish Group I cited in blog #31. No surprises there then, it was all so depressingly, predictably, “Shirehall”.

As explained in the earlier blog, the vast bulk of planning applications are decided by officers using delegated powers, the rate currently running at around 94%. I’d like to see it higher and can see no logical reason why it should not run at around 98%. (I need figures to fully explain why and they’ll be sought as early in the New Year as practicable.)

Now, whilst lip-service is paid to revising current systems to enable (or at least work towards) that figure, actually attaining that figure will remain a lonely aspiration on my part because Establishment thinking cannot accept that “things have changed”. Add in a bit of vested interest and you’ll see the problem.

But in fairness there is an argument that puts a high value on the local knowledge brought into play by a planning committee’s deliberations – an argument that I supported before it dawned on me that “things have changed”. Given the seismic shift that the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) caused in planning legislation over the last three years it is now relatively easy to make the case that the value of local knowledge is over-stated because over-rated.

Contention Rules, OK.

Under the present regime, an application that the local Member considers contentious can be called in to committee IF the Planning Manager and the Chair of the relevant planning committee agree that the application IS contentious. In my personal experience, not only is such agreement rarely ever reached but the local Member is rarely advised of the outcome of their attempt to call-in an application on their patch, becoming aware only when the decision to either allow or refuse the application is published.

That decision as to whether or not an application is contentious is where the problem lies, because whilst YOU may know what the word means, that is no guarantee that anyone else shares your understanding.

In consequence, to the two words I often put in “quotes”: sustainable and consultation, I add a third: “contentious”.

In the world of planning the words have been re-defined beyond their original meaning to mean nothing at all. Into the space thus created can be slipped whatever temporary meaning planners and developers can devise to support their arguments pro and con, regardless of any local Member or community input.

NOTE. An object lesson of this semantic phenomenon is the recent decision of the Planning Inspector in the case of a development on the outskirts of Ludlow. It is worth reading about it and Shropshire Council Planning Department’s craven decision not to take the case to judicial review. See: http://shropshire.gov.uk/news/2016/12/shropshire-council-statement-re-foldgate-lane-ludlow-planning-appeal/

It was an experience of planning that prompted me to retire at 66 instead of the intended 70 years of age, despite loving what I did and with almost twelve month’s of profitable work on my books! That’s the way it can affect you, contention, to we mere mortals it is lethal, to the professionals involved in planning it is grist to their mill. To the politicians involved in deciding the fate of an application in another councillor’s electoral Division – especially one they don’t like – it just adds to the fun.

The dictionary definition of ‘contentious’ is:


1. tending to argue or quarrel

2. causing or characterized by dispute; controversial

3. law relating to a cause or legal business that is contested, esp a probate matter

Collins English Dictionary. Copyright © Harper Collins Publishers

No argument there (pun intended), but what it means in planning terms, according to personal experience, is:

Can the Planning Manager and Chair of [whatever planning committee] get away with insisting that the reasons given by the Local Member for calling in a planning application be dismissed out of hand and, if challenged on that dismissal, can the Planning Manager and Chair of [whatever planning committee] stare the local Member down?

Dave Tremellen’s Personal Dictionary © Feel free, help yourself.

The answer doesn’t actually need to be either yes or no because they’re not likely to give a toss either way.

On the matter of committees.

Now, anyone told that I wrote this paragraph several weeks ago…

The likelihood of the T&F Group deciding on a single committee is, on a scale of zero to whatever figure you choose, zero. It isn’t going to happen.

and hearing what subsequently happened at the meeting before last, might be tempted to think it was an acutely perceptive forecast of the outcome of the T&F group’s deliberations on the future make up of Shropshire’s planning system.

I wish.

In fact the outcome was totally predictable, no insight required.

The decision to retain all three committees was announced as a sort of after-thought on Thursday 8 December at the end of the meeting of the Enterprise & Growth Scrutiny Committee. Hearing the announcement I pulled a face. Despite my sitting in the public area away from the committee table it was noticed by the chair who asked if I wanted to say anything on the matter. I said the committee wouldn’t want to hear what I had to say. I was assured otherwise.


Keeping the three committees is a bloody stupid idea.”

I did tell them they wouldn’t like it.

Quite why that decision to maintain the status quo was allowed to be made by people who had so much of a pecuniary interest in the outcome should, for the reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere (see blog #31), be open to a lot of very big questions.

Likelihood of that ever happening?

Don’t be silly.