The key to a good relationship with elected members is understanding the role of councillors and the overall objectives of the council. Elected members have the democratic oversight and you as a planner are providing the technical input, and it’s about working together. There are going to be times when your professional opinion is something they don’t necessarily concur with, and where they might apply a different balance to the range of issues that you have explained to them. That’s how the democratic process works.
Here are a few tips on how to develop a good working relationship with elected members:
· Use clear English, and always try to de-mystify planning. One of the things that planners are very good at is using planning speak, but I think it’s really important, whether working with councillors or the public, to try not to use, for example, acronyms. Equally, if you need to use technical language to be precise then follow up with an explanation in plain English. On the flip side don’t be afraid sometimes of using colloquialisms and try to explain things in such a way that people can visualise them – for example if you are talking about the height of the building, draw comparisons with other buildings that they know. Reading plans is a skill and we are expert at it – but others aren’t and so using things to which people can relate is useful.
· Understand the amount of papers that some councillors – particularly Cabinet Members – have to get through so when writing reports, try to keep them as concise as possible. Everyone likes to think they have covered everything, which is understandable because of the scope for judicial review and complaints. But it is about getting the balance right in ensuring you have covered all the issues and considerations, whilst at the same time keeping the report succinct and providing the information needed to assist in making that decision. Provide the broad summary, and if there is background information, provide links to where that additional material can be found – that allows people to go and explore more if they want to.
· I’d definitely recommend holding regular meetings with key members. When I was a chief planner, I had regular one-to-ones with the Cabinet Member. It was incredibly important as I was able to understand where they were coming from, and how their view related to the councils’ adopted policies. Regular one-to-ones help to understand why there may sometimes be a difference of opinion and can assist in finding ways to manage those situations. That doesn’t mean to say that you change your professional opinion, but recognising why members may take the view they do is important. There are occasions where points are raised that you hadn’t necessarily considered or been aware of – particularly on matters of local knowledge.
· If there is something you have concerns about and feel you need a sounding board, then speak to your senior manager – it’s about not sitting in isolation but rather talking things through. Also, don’t always think you should be bounced into giving an immediate answer to a member because you may feel you need to go away and reflect and understand their perspective. You can always give a holding reply to say you might need to discuss it with others before responding.
It doesn’t matter who you are dealing with, there will always be people, whether elected members, members of the public, developers or colleagues, who will have different opinions, because everyone’s different. But recognising that there may be a debate to be had on an issue and understanding the context where a different view has been taken is a very valuable skill.
Nicky Linihan is communications officer and housing topic specialist at the Planning Officers Society and an Independent planning consultant.