The role and remit of local councillors – is the system working?

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Shannon Lynn
November 6, 2023
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In the second part of our planning and politics blog series, we delve into the topic of local councils – and whether the current system is working. 

We’ll be taking a look at councillors’ roles in relation to property development and the ways in which the planning system could be improved. 


What do local councillors do? 

Local councillors are an elected community representative that hold a position within the local council. 

They help create the vision and plans for the local authority area and help to implement these changes alongside permanent council employees. 

A large part of their role is talking with members of the public and local businesses to figure out where the priorities of the council should lie. 

For a more in-depth look at the structures of local government, check out part one of our blog series here


The role of local councillors in property development

Property development is often a subject highly contested and discussed by constituents. And, therefore, something that councillors will have to tackle frequently in their role. 

This could be in regards to the implementation of more green spaces or infrastructure projects that will positively impact the community, such as playgrounds or more cycle lanes. Or council-wide regeneration schemes. 

They also engage with members of the public to hear their concerns about proposed developments and make sure they are providing adequate local benefits. 

Councillors have a role in setting the strategic direction of their area by scoping and approving their area’s Local Plan, and can also sit within the planning committee to decide on planning applications. 

All of this is great in theory, but with ever-increasing complaints about the planning system – are things working as they should? 




Is the system working?

In recent years, there have been a lot of questions and criticisms of the time it takes to get approval for planning applications, and more criticism of Councils failing to progress new policy in their Local Plan.

Appeal success can also vary based on whether the members have agreed or disagreed with the recommendations of their officers. Research carried out in 2017 shows that when members disagreed with their officer’s recommendation the chance of success at appeal would be nearly a third higher. This means that sometimes, the vital democratic link played by members just adds costs and time to the process, without significantly altering the result. 

Part of the reason for this is the fact that planning decisions often require a nuanced understanding of complex and inter-related issues, sometimes based on the findings of lengthy technical reports. Councillors, many who do not have a formal planning background and are offered scarce opportunities for training, are expected to jump straight in and make decisions.  

There’s also the question of political motivation in driving decision making – are councillors making decisions based on party allegiance rather than planning evidence? 

Unpacking this question can help figure out where the flaws are in the current system and highlights what can be done to prevent bias and delays within the planning process. 


How could it be improved?

It’s unlikely that the whole system is going to be overhauled, but there are small improvements that could be made to make things run smoother. 

For example, providing local councillors with education on key topics, or the implications (both in costs and time) of making a particular decision. 

Currently, if Councillors make a decision that then is overturned at appeal, it’s possible for the applicant to claim their costs back from the Council under certain circumstances. This means that ensuring that the Councillors make a ‘reasonable’ decision, and that this is based on the evidence that they are presented with, is vital to prevent a costly payout from the already stretched local authority budgets.  

This issue isn’t unique to English planning, however, a similar issue was affecting planning decisions in and around Sydney, Australia until 2009 when Planning Panels were first introduced to New South Wales. Initially, this was introduced just for larger, or cross boundary developments, but then was rolled out to larger local developments; of the type that previously would have been decided on by an elected council committee. 

Local Planning Panels now consist of a chair and two independent experts appointed by a council, plus a community representative (normally a Councillor). The independent experts come from a pool of independent experts with relevant qualifications who have been endorsed by a minister. 

While this change isn’t without its critics, particularly among local councillors, putting more decision making responsibilities into the hands of people who are trained and experienced to make the decision has had a positive impact on the quality and pace of planning decisions elsewhere. 

Adding more diverse voices into local councils can make sure that people across different demographics are in positions of influence. 

Want to find out more about navigating politics in planning?

Listen to the first episode of Series 3 of the Real Developer podcast to hear from Harry Quartermain (Head of Research & Insights at LandTech), Julian Seymour (MD at Cratus), and Harry Keen (Senior Associate at London Green) where they discuss the limitations of the current local planning system – and options for improvement.

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