In terms of the most important functions that Local Authorities are tasked with delivering, residents will point to refuse collection and planning. Both are indeed very emotive – no one wants smelly bins hanging around in front of their property and no-one wants a monstrosity built in front of or behind their house. And residents expect their local Councillor to sort it all out.
In terms of planning , many of the local councillors will seek to discharge their duty through sitting on Planning Committees. But are they effective when they do so?
Councillors are volunteers elected to perform a role and to represent the community that elects them. This mandate is their qualification. But this, in itself, does not properly equip them with the ability to make decisions based on complex legal and technical issues, which often have huge cost implications. And this is the problem with many planning committees.
There is a significant variation in the competency of Planning Committee members throughout the UK, which often comes down to training. Credit must go to those authorities which have high quality regular compulsory training, where members will be debarred from sitting on the committee if they fail to complete the programme. But sadly, this “good practice” is far less commonplace than it should be and those who do not have such training regimes in place need to address the issue. In no other walk of life would you ask someone “unqualified” to make a decision for you which could cost thousands of pounds and change the place in which you live. So why do some Local Planning Authorities believe that it is acceptable for “unqualified” councillors to do the same on a planning committee?
This leads me to the next question – what is sufficient training? Again, views on this clearly vary from Authority to Authority. At the very least it should incorporate elements covering, place-making and best practice planning and a grounding in the policy frameworks within which Councillors make their decisions. But the list goes on and the list is ever evolving – so the content and frequency of the training must reflect that “ever evolving” context.
This training issue is serious. These councillors are administering a quasi-judicial function, making decisions that affect people’s rights, having direct implications for the social and economic well-being of their local community. There is no excuse for any authority not to have a robust compulsory training programme in place for these decision makers and if they fail to do that then they let themselves, their councillors and most importantly their communities, down.