What is the planning committee and what part do elected councillors play in the decision? The final decision on whether a planning application is refused or approved is not made by the planning Officers (see: Revised Scheme of Delegation ), unless it’s a delegated decision, but by a group of South Hams local politicians who sit on the planning committee. These local councillors are meant to take an objective overview of the application and make a decision based on an officer’s recommendation. Many local councillors tell their electors that they are not allowed to discuss planning applications. This is not the case.
Local councillors have an absolute duty to listen to the views of their electors. However, many codes of conduct in local government require councillors to behave in certain ways. Please check your local code of conduct (which is likely to be included within your council’s constitution). Good local councillors should listen to your views and then be able to take them into account in the final decision. They will not always give you a yes or no answer about their position.
How do councillors actually reach a decision? The planning committee must consider all relevant information. This is often known as information which is ‘material’ to a planning application. Despite what some planning officers say, anything which relates to the use and development of land is capable of being relevant and material to a planning decision. However, while a whole range of issues might be relevant, from the loss of important dogwalking space to the effect on global climate change, some things are clearly going to carry ‘greater weight’.
The most important thing in reaching a decision on application is what the local development plan says. In a nutshell the plans set out what and how much development should go where. Each plan has to go through an Examination in Public and in theory you should have had the opportunity to be involved in that process as a member of the local community. There is a legal presumption in favour of what is in the development plan. So if an application for housing is proposed on a piece of land already identified for housing, it is likely to be approved.
On the other hand, any application that is made which contravenes local plan policy is likely to be refused. These applications are known as departure cases (i.e. where they depart from the development plan) and have to be notified to the Secretary of State. The applicant will need to provide an extremely persuasive case as to why such development should take place in contravention of the plan.
There are some cases where the development plan will not be the most important issue. There might be other material considerations which were not explored at the development plan stage. There might, for example, be a particular rare species on a site which has legal protection and this might outweigh the provisions of the development plan.
It is worth remembering, that the older the plan the less ‘weight’ it carries. Developers will often say that a plan that was adopted five years ago is out of date and that their development should take place because of changes in patterns of demand. It is also important to bear in mind that the draft plan could have relevance to your case. The basic guidance is, the further the plan has gone down the adoption process, the more relevant it is. However where the local plan is not in place, then the National Planning Policy Framework (or NPPF) and the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ applies.
The final decision of the planning committee is a mixture of factual technical information on local and national policy imperatives and of local political views.
Using Planning Policy In practice you should always have a good look at your local plan to see if the application fits with the policy that is written there. You will find that local plans contain a whole range of policy which is sometimes contradictory. It is always possible to use local plan policy to support your case, particularly perhaps the sections on biodiversity and climate change. Relating your objections to local and national policy gives much more force in the decision-making process. A full list of the national policies The National Planning Policy Framework can be found here.