Careers Advice: Effective ways of preparing for planning committees

Council chamber

Planning Committee is a vital part of the planning process. Decisions on most of the major planning applications in the country are made by elected members at Planning Committee. Always remember that the members of the committee are elected politicians, and if any members of the public are present, particularly objectors or supporters, they are the voters. They may well have established a dialogue with members over the preceding months, they may be very well known to the members. Each authority operates its own Planning Committee, and these will differ across the country, in terms of how frequently the committee sits, the numbers of members on the committee, whether objectors can speak. However, for all planning committees the principles of how to prepare for the committee, and how to behave at it, will be similar throughout the country, whether you are working on behalf of the applicant or for the local authority.

Preparing for the committee

  • Always go along along to the committee in advance to watch how it operates before you have to present to it. It is always useful to gain an insight into how the committee operates, how members behave, what style of presentation is usual, what type of questions members are likely to ask.

  • Make sure that you have visited the site, and the local area. Members will probably know the area better that you, and may ask questions based on local knowledge.

  • Find out how long you are expected to speak for, and make sure that your presentation is within the allotted time. Nothing is more frustrating than for applicants to be told “time’s up” before they have made all their points.

Preparing your presentation

  • Make your presentation concise, and emphasise the points of contention. The members will have had the the planning officers technical report for some days, and be aware of the issues.

  • Keep the presentation crisp. Don’t use acronyms that members may not be aware of. Members are rarely planners, and their knowledge of planning policy and legislation is unlikely to be as detailed as yours.

  • Make sure you have read the officer report thoroughly. You don’t need to repeat it word-for-word, nor do you need to quote lengthy policies. You will not have time to. Practise your speech in advance, to be sure that you can fit within the allotted time

  • Prepare a visual presentation if that is how the authority operates. Use slides to help you make your point. The applicant will need a few slides to show what their development will look like in the local area should approval be given. The planning officer will need slides to set the context of the local area, and then the proposal.

  • Make sure that the slides flow with the verbal presentation, rather than just be a random selection. Your credibility can slide with a sloppy presentation.

At the committee

  • Speak slowly and clearly, and to the microphone, making sure that you can be heard. Nothing will put you off more than a voice from the back of the room shouting “speak up, we can’t hear you”.

  • Be prepared to answer a wide range of questions. Many of these will be of a more general nature, so make sure that you have a wider knowledge of the area, the authority, planning policy and law.

  • Be aware of the main points of contention in the application, and be prepared to debate them.

  • Always be respectful to members. There may be a hostile atmosphere, especially if the scheme is contentious and objectors are in the room. Don’t be tempted to make a smart comment, or be patronising. That won’t work in your favour.

  • Always have a ‘Plan B’ ready, whether this is agreeing an amendment on behalf of the applicant, or adding conditions at the request of members, or even having reasons for refusal or conditions ready, should members overturn the officer recommendation.

Marilyn Smith was formerly chief planning officer at the London Borough of Hounslow

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