This year has witnessed the first concerted effort to train local authority Councillors about planning. This might seem somewhat strange, since Councillors have been legally responsible for deciding planning applications and preparing development plans – Structure Plans and Local Plans – since 1947.
Like so many aspects of British public life, it was long assumed that Councillors didn’t training on this kind of thing. They employ planning officials to advise them on planning, and tell them how the system works. They have education, qualifications and years of experience. Why spend money training Councillors?
But the planning system is incredibly complicated. Most people don’t have a clue how it works. And Councillors are people, just like you and me. Can you imagine what it must be like, being a new Councillor, having to sift your way through mountains of paper with expert views for and against development proposals, and then having to make a legal decision on whether to accept them or not? I’d find it pretty scary.
It’s also pretty scary for me as a member of the public to think that important planning decisions are being made by untrained people. Very well meaning and intelligent people, I’m sure, but nonetheless untrained – through no fault of their own.
So I hugely welcome the decision of the Scottish Executive-sponsored Improvement Service to provide training for all Scottish Councillors after the May 2007 election. It couldn’t have come sooner.
A new venture
I’ve been privileged to be part of the TPS Planning consultancy team who have been going round country doing the training sessions. Although I personally didn’t get to Shetland – only as far as Wick – the team did. And it was fascinating.
Across the vast majority of events I was involved with, the Councillors’ desire to learn about planning was tremendous. Old hands and new kids on block alike, most Councillors were keen to engage, discuss, and learn how to use planning for the good of their local communities.
Our messages were quite simple. Firstly, we urged Councillors to use their development plan. Get involved in its preparation, and make sure it meets their community’s aspirations – whether it’s for more affordable housing, better quality design, a firmer position about developer contributions to community facilities, or a more up-to-date local plan.
Secondly, we encouraged Councillors to make the most of their planning officers. They are experienced, committed professionals: their expertise is the single biggest resource that Councillors have to help them achieve their aspirations for the future development of their communities. Our message was that Councillors should work closely with their officials, spelling out their aspirations to them and then stretching them to use the planning system as much as they can to deliver those aspirations.
And thirdly, we said stick to the Councillor’s Code of Conduct. We urged Councillors to treat it as a positive framework to guide their decision making, rather than the blunt stick that was the threat of surcharge. Each of our workshops included a dedicated session on the Code, using real examples, which most Councillors found very useful.
“I’ve got another two years work to do after that training session!” was the comment of senior planning official at the end of the session, as his Councillors gained confidence and saw the real potential of what planning could deliver for them. But he wasn’t complaining: officers up and down the country have intimated how they far prefer the challenge of working with motivated Councillors who want to see planning deliver.
Building up the knowledge and, fundamentally, the confidence of Councillors through training has to be a sustained, long term effort. As Councillors told us in their feedback, this training needs to be repeated frequently – certainly after every local authority election as a minimum.
But if we keep up this impetus, I believe we will find that Councillors leading their officers to set an ambitious planning agenda will become the norm – not the exception.