Planning committees can prove to be very tense evenings for planning consultants. Seeing many months of work boil down to the decision-making powers of elected members can leave consultants and applicants alike feeling somewhat powerless. However, careful preparation in advance of a committee can still help improve your chances of success on the night.
Preparation is key to achieving a successful outcome. In addition to briefing members on the proposals, it is essential to thoroughly review the committee report as soon as it is published. This will help identify the issues which officers consider to be key to the determination of the application and to which members may be expected to focus on. A review of representations from neighbouring occupiers will also help identify issues which are likely to be raised in the event that there are objectors registered to speak against the proposals. While uncommon, there is also the potential to correct any errors in the report, which if left unchecked, might mislead members in their decision-making.
Carefully reviewing the proposed conditions is also useful. There is still an opportunity to have conditions amended, with the varied wording included on a committee addendum; this can save the applicant a great deal of time and expense further down the line. Prior to a recent planning committee I was able to negotiate slight changes to conditioned opening hours and noise levels, for which the applicant was very grateful.
Beforehand, it is always worth familiarising yourself with the particular council’s committee protocols, as these can vary quite dramatically depending on the local authority. Whilst some planning committees do not permit public speaking, the vast majority do. If objectors have registered to speak, clients will often be very keen to have an opportunity to address the committee and present their side of the argument. There is invariably a time limit on speaking which is usually rigidly enforced, so it is vital to rehearse your speech and ensure it can be delivered within the time limit (usually three minutes). Many people forget about this constraint and are cut-off before they have had the chance to complete their speech.
It is useful to have an understanding of the political make-up of the committee, as this can provide a broad understanding of the type of issues councillors are likely to be interested in, and potentially pre-empt any questions from members. Keeping in close contact with the planning officers is essential. Many boroughs have ‘callovers’ at which officers discuss the proposals with councillors in advance of the committee. A quick conversation with the officer before committee can help highlight any elements of the proposals which councillors may have particular concerns about, and which you can then address when you speak.
On the night
As the planning consultants, we are always fully prepared to speak at committee, although there are instances in which it may be preferable for the applicant themselves to address the planning committee, given their personal investment in the proposal.
It is common for a planning consultant to write committee speeches either to present themselves or for the client’s benefit. In doing so it is important not to forget the audience that the speech is prepared for. Planning committees are not made up of planning professionals. There is no point trying to set out detailed technical information, for example the extent to which daylight and sunlight results may meet the various tests within the BRE Guidance, as this will largely be lost on members. The key is to keep the speech clear and succinct and to avoid overly technical, property industry terminology; for example refer to “homes”, not “units”.
To sum-up, preparation is essential, as is good communication with the planning officer who is reporting the application to committee. On the night, make sure you speak clearly and make short points that are easy to follow and above all, be persuasive.
Billy Pattison is principal planner at consultants Boyer