Earlier this month, Cratus was delighted to support the RTPI as they re-launched their ‘’Politicians in Planning Network” (PIPN). The launch event included a keynote speech by the indefectible Jackie Weaver and then a panel debate chaired by my colleague Julian Seymour, Managing Director of Planning Communications, with an outstanding group of councillors. They shared their hopes and the challenges they face when trying to deliver ‘good’ local planning in these very political times.
My simple task was to provide a final summing up, thank the team who organised the event, and pledge to participate and encourage everyone to embrace this opportunity to foster a stronger relationship between politicians and planners.
As I listened to the pearls of wisdom imparted by the participants I wondered what I could contribute. Jackie Weaver is not only an internet sensation but she is also a welcome advocate for the Parish and Town Councils in particular and Local Government in general. I was reminded during her keynote that Jackie loves ‘’Strictly Come Dancing’’ and the producers of the next series would be wise to sign her up. And then it struck me, the relationship between elected members and local authority planners is just like Strictly!
Every four years, with annual opportunities for a refresh, planning departments up and down the country brace themselves for new appointments to Planning Committees and the impact of the planning portfolio itself switching to another executive member. Just like the professional dancers, the planning teams have no say in who they get to work with; that is all in the hands of the producers or, in this case, the leaders of the political groups.
The planners will have often studied at university, developed their professional skills and experience over the years working through the ranks of local authority planning, some specialising in policy and others enjoying the diversity of development and control.
The members, chosen by their electorate, almost always have very limited experience of planning and, if my own personal experience is anything to go by, their first day as a councillor is also their first time inside the council offices. Up until that moment, I had not encountered the planning system in any way – not as an applicant, an objector or, as is now true, as a consultant to applicants. I simply knew nothing!
These newly formed professional relationships, just as with Strictly where the professional dancers begin to train their celebrities, start with officers taking their councillors, step by step, through the planning system. Initially they focus on the process of decision making – the basics – and then, as the councillors become more confident, the officer begins to expose them to the more complicated and often daunting elements of planning policy – the advanced moves!
As confidence and competence evolves in the ensuing weeks and when trust is achieved, great things can begin to happen. However, if either partner in this double act struggles to comprehend their respective roles then it can become messy. Toes get stepped upon and tempers can fray. It can all make for some unattractive viewing – be it on the TV studio dance floor or within a council chamber.
Few elected members will ever accumulate the knowledge and experience that is held by their officers, yet that hasn’t stopped some councillors from playing to the audience when they should have been following their planners’ advice. Similarly, it’s been known for the planners to miss something because they are, after all, human beings or have not appreciated the effect a dryly worded policy document can have on existing communities. Such input, the local knowledge, from the politician on the ground can often save a council from a truckload of avoidable community uproar.
A vital element running throughout the delivery of good planning for any community is the relationship between the councillors and their planners. When it works well then the results can be spectacular and many scheme should and do score ‘‘a 10!’’ in my mind. However, when it goes wrong a suitably enraged public can be trusted to make Craig Revel Horwood look and sound like a very polite, gentle soul…
Now that the RTPI Politicians in Planning network has been launched, in the future I hope that it will encourage greater understanding and trust between the two sides, alongside the communities which will benefit the most from good planning and development. After all, it is residents who will decide the fate of the councillor when they next stand for election. Sadly for those who don’t get the votes, in this setting there is rarely a dance off. It’s more akin to an eviction from the Big Brother house.
But for now, I hope this initiative does attract renewed interest and support from local councillors and, together with the RTPI members toiling away in planning departments up and down the country, they remain determined to… KEEP PLANNING!