Making representations to a planning committee
The applicant, objectors and supporters may wish to make representations to a planning committee dealing with an application or another planning matter. This will usually be by writing to the committee members before the meeting or by speaking at the committee if the authority’s procedures allow for this.
The best time to contact committee members is after the officer report has been published. A letter written at an earlier stage might not be read, is likely not to be fully understood without a detailed report, and will probably be forgotten before the meeting takes place.
Once the committee report is published, the opportunity arises to seek to support the officer recommendation or dissuade councillors from following it. For written and oral representations the same basic principles apply:
(i) focus on the key points which are capable of turning councillors’ minds. Bringing up a mass of technical points are likely to mean that councillors miss the critical issue;
(ii) the points raised should be proper planning points which are attractive to politicians. The question is what would councillors find decisive, particularly to go against an officer recommendation? They need to be proper planning issues, which may include economic benefits;
(iii) the points need to be made clearly such that they can be followed by someone who has read the committee report.
Points to avoid
(i) do not assume that the members will simply follow the officer recommendation. Councillors consider, rightly, that they were elected to make decisions, not to rubberstamp the views of officers. Even worse than making the assumption is to address the councillors as if they will just do what they are advised;
(ii) do not attack the competence, honesty or integrity of the officers. What matters is whether the advice is wrong, or why it ought not be followed, rather than any motivation or ability which caused it to be wrong;
(iii) threatening the Council with an appeal, costs awards, judicial review or reporting to the local government ombudsman should be done sparingly and with great care.
Letters should be fairly short, with two or three pages being a reasonable length. Committee meetings will usually deal with a number of applications – often more than ten – and the task of carefully reading the committee report will take some time. That preparation has to be fitted around the members’ other political and personal (including work) commitments. Unless they are especially interested in the application they will not appreciate a lengthy submission, with appendices.
There is no difficulty in writing to councillors directly but it is prudent to copy any letter to the planning department.
Other dealings with committee members in advance of a meeting should be handled with more care. Councillors should be, and generally are, concerned to avoid giving an impression that they are committed to one side before determining an application. The authority will usually have a planning code of conduct which guides such dealings.
No such restrictions apply to councillors who are not on the committee. They can be approached, in particular members representing wards or divisions which contain or are likely to be affected by the development. Such members can campaign vigorously for one side or another.
Oral representations to the committee
Many planning committees are prepared to hear oral representations from applicants and other persons. Whether and how this will be done will be set out in a published procedure. Invariably there will be a need to register in advance of the meeting, usually a day or so beforehand. It is vital for potential speakers to check and comply with this requirement. If the person finds out about the meeting at a late stage because of an error by the authority to inform them in time, then they should ask to speak out of time if they wish to do so. Where the authority has been at fault, it should treat the request as if it had been made in time.
The time limits are usually ruthlessly enforced so unless the speaker is capable of extemporising a concise speech with a timer, it is sensible for the speech to be fully scripted and rehearsed against the clock. Speakers on the same side should coordinate their submissions to make the best use of time. If a letter has been sent to the committee before the meeting there is no point in reading this out, but the speaker may wish to make the same point in a different way.
Parties will need to think who should speak for them. The choice will be between the applicant/objector, the planning consultant or architect, an expert professional if a particular specialist issue arises, or a solicitor or counsel. This will often depend upon individuals’ own skills and preferences, as well as the decisive issues in the case: will the committee be swayed by a heart-felt plea, or professional assurance or is there a hard issue, perhaps of law, where the committee need to be persuaded to disagree with their officers?