Silence at planning committee?

New rules on representation in the planning process are a step backwards, argues Nigel Bagshaw.

There is nothing more at the heart of what councils do than planning.  As councillors, our job is to look at proposals for development put forward by owners of land and seek to ensure that proper account is taken of the wider community and public interest.

Not every decision councils make is popular.  But a central part of the process is allowing local councillors to represent the views of local people at the committee which takes planning decisions (the alluringly-named Development Management Sub-Committee, in Edinburgh’s case).  Local people can also make their views known in advance, but not at the actual meeting.  They are also not allowed the same rights of appeal (so-called Third Party Right of Appeal, which Greens support) as developers are.  This is why the role of local councillors is important.

But in 2011 the Standards Commission for Scotland introduced new rules which have now forced the Council to change its procedures.  One of the consequences of the new rules has been to remove the ability of local councillors to address the committee before it decides on planning applications. On the face of it, that would appear to be a minor change.  In reality it is not.

The fact that a local councillor can speak up for his or her constituents and voice their concerns is important because it goes some way toward to redressing the general imbalance in the planning system. The Standards Commission has said that all interested parties are to be given equal opportunity to make representations at this particular stage of proceedings, with the implication that allowing local councillors to speak is unfair to others.  But this fails to take account of the broader context.

At present, applicants (generally property developers) enjoy a presumption in favour of development (enshrined in law), support from council officers to guide them through the system and, most crucially, a right of appeal.

Communities enjoy none of these rights and although they have some opportunities to make their views known directly, their most powerful advocate is often their local councillor who they have democratically elected to represent them.  While some community groups and individuals are very adept at making their views known, many find the planning system complex and daunting. So the role of the councillor, in making sure these views are heard, is about social as well as environmental justice.

If we are going to ensure that the planning system provides for the needs of the people who are affected by it, then they have to have a proper, equal hearing in it, and support from their ward councillor forms an essential part of that. This move makes a planning system, which is already uneven, even more imperfect and we have to make every effort to reverse it.