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exam time for Councillors!

collaborationCouncillor training on planning is back on the agenda, more than ever before. The draft Planning Bill published this week proposes:

  • compulsory planning training for Councillors
  • an examination for any Councillors involved in planning decisions

At face value, those proposals are a pretty strong indictment. Improvement is needed. But are Councillors really that bad at planning?

Like any cohort of people, some will be better than others. But I don’t think it’s reasonable to argue that Councillors are no worse as a group than any other collection of folk.  Arguably Councillors as a group might actually perform well, since they operate in the glare of public scrutiny and their fate is decided by voters every 5 years – a level of accountability which many other folk don’t face in their day to day jobs.  Ironically, perhaps it’s that level of public scrutiny – and public responsibility – which leads to demand for improvement.

I’ve delivered three training sessions for Councillors over the last fortnight, with my colleague former Glasgow City Council Planning Convenor Robert MacBean, in different local authorities. Having spent many fascinating hours in the company of Councillors and officers, this question of Councillor training is high in my mind.

What are my observations?

1: bums on seats

My experience from recent training sessions, and others in the past, is that it is extremely difficult for officers to get all Councillors to come to training, however hard they try. Busy diaries and competing priorities don’t help. Nor does the fact that planning isn’t always regarded as the positive force for good that we planners know it can be.

Some form of coercion might of course help to get bums on seats. Presumably the draft Planning Bill’s proposal to have a planning exam for Councillors is intended, amongst other reasons, to achieve that.

My sense is that the majority of Councillors are keen to learn about planning, but there is a minority who either don’t think that they need training or don’t prioritise it. My experience is that often the ones who might benefit most from training most are not newcomers, but those who’ve been involved in planning for a while.

2: good training

Those Councillors who do attend training are, in my experience, very engaged. They want to make their communities and places better. They want to make good decisions. They enjoy the quasi-judicial nature of planning, which is quite different from many other areas of local politics. And those Councillors react very well to good training.

But what is “good training”?

Good training should be well-designed, engaging and interactive – with quizzes, role plays, scenarios, case studies and site visits, all spiced with plenty of opportunity to explore thorny issues and share experience.  If I’m being trained, I don’t want to sit there staring at endless slides of bullet points. Why should I inflict that on others?

“Tell me, I’ll forget.
Show me, I’ll remember.
Involve me, I’ll understand.”

Good training should also be responsive to Councillors’ needs.  Being a Councillor is a difficult role: pressures from all angles, the spotlight of public scrutiny, never-ending procedures, and technical jargon across not only planning but a whole range of other public services… that must be a tough gig.

That’s why I believe that one of the trainers should be a former Councillor, with (senior) experience in a planning role.  That brings an understanding and insight that I as a planner simply don’t have. Councillors really appreciate the opportunity to share the peculiar challenges that they face with someone who has direct experience – and, similarly, the opportunity to explore with them their aspirations to make their communities better.

3: building relationships

Finally, planning is difficult.

The concept of sticking to the Local Development Plan as the bible for determining planning applications sounds simple (and is something that we reiterate again and again in our training), but it’s not so easy in practice.

Navigating through hundreds of pages of planning policies, understanding their relative weighting, how to interpret policy wording that’s often flexible: that’s something which trained, experienced planners can struggle with. And that’s without considering material considerations, a world of nuance, balance and flexibility.

It’s hard enough for a Councillor, essentially a lay person, to navigate all that when they’re making a decision on a Planning Committee; at least they have an officer’s recommendation to guide them, even if the reasoning has to be couched in professional language in a Report of Handling.  Imagine what it’s like for a Councillors on a Local Review Body where thy have effectively to behave as a planner, determining planning applications from scratch without the support of an officer’s recommendation.

One of the most important things I’ve learnt in recent Councillor training sessions is the importance of Councillors and officers working collaboratively: the concept of the planning authority as a team.  Councillors make the decisions, officers provide support. Together, they try to make good decisions in line with the Local Development Plan unless material considerations suggest otherwise.  And if they disagree with the Plan, they should seek to change it rather than undermine it.

Councillors and officers don’t always have to agree. If Councillors want to disagree with officers’ recommendations, that’s their right.  But it’s also their responsibility to do so on planning grounds. That’s where the collaborative relationship with officers is important, to help provide planning grounds where possible, and to advise if that’s not possible.

Conclusion

To my mind, that collaborative objective is the real purpose of Councillor training: to support Councillors and officers to work collaboratively as the planning authority. It’s not about fixing bad practice, but about making the most of planning’s potential.

The benefits are a virtuous circle: robust planning decisions, a strong Local Development Plan, a positive reputation for the planning authority – all contributing to delivery of a positive vision for the future, with planning as a positive tool for better places and better communities.


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