Careers Advice: Managing Members

Written by: Marilyn Smith
Published on: 8 Apr 2019

Council chamber

All planning decisions are political. As a planner, you need to understand the political nature of authorities, and how to deal with members.

The majority of planners in both the public sector and private sector will come in to contact with elected members in the course of their work. Decision-making is a function of the local authority, and the constitution of each local authority will state which decisions are delegated to planning officers to make on behalf of members, and which decisions will be made directly by members. Decisions on the more controversial and major planning applications, and the progress of local plans, are generally made directly by elected members at Planning Committee. However, whilst the majority of planning decisions are made by planning officers under delegated authority, elected councillors can equally show such an interest in minor applications, for example proposals for a house extension in their ward.

Understanding Members

  • Members are local people elected by local residents. They will either be members of a political party, or independent. They are responsive to residents, who voted for them, in varying degrees.

  • Be aware of controversial local issues. Some members may have been elected on a promise to oppose certain developments, and will feel obligated to continue this line. Understand this, and work with the community, rather than drawing up battle lines for an expensive and time consuming fight

  • Members have a standing in the local community. Do not do anything to undermine this – understand and respect their position.

  • Be aware of political timetables. Decision-making close to elections may be skewed by local issues, and need for votes, so if you know your application will generate significant public interest, think about when to submit it.

  • Learn the political background of the council, and know the political background of each member. Some are more party political than others.

Dealing with Members

  • Establish a respectful relationship with members. Get to know the members after an election, let them know who you are, how you can be contacted, and assure them that you will help answer any questions.

  • Answer their enquiries promptly. If they ask you for information, it is usually on behalf of a resident, and often that concerned resident will be contacting them every night, wanting an answer. The member needs to be able to show that they are representing the community, that they can get things done, and are acting as the interface between the faceless council officials and the public

  • Members are residents. They live in the local community, and will be contacted directly by local residents. They often have valuable local knowledge, and can understand why certain objections are coming forward. They can be of assistance in neighbour disputes, whether it be a boundary dispute for a house extension, or a major development.

  • Keep members, and the political leadership, briefed of planning applications that are coming forward which may generate local interest. Members feel let down by planning officers if the first they know of a controversial scheme is a group of angry residents turning up at their Saturday morning surgery.

  • Work with members. If a compromise can be reached to show that the member has had some influence in a decision, whether it be an amendment to a scheme, adding a condition or a contribution for a local project under a section 106 agreement, that will maintain the balance between bringing forward views of residents and achieving a scheme that is acceptable in planning terms, then all sides can be content.

  • Members will have varying amounts of knowledge and experience of the planning system. Use straightforward language, do not use the acronyms so beloved of professional planners. Explain in depth what is a material planning consideration, what the status of the local plan is etc.

Ultimately, planners and politicians must work together to bring development forward, so establishing and maintaining good working relationship will benefit all.

Marilyn Smith is planning decisions manager at the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham.