Careers Advice: Writing committee reports: getting more from less

Written by: David Kaiserman
Published On: 24 Apr 2017

Shredder

If you’re involved in development management, you’re probably very busy – in which case, you’ll be looking for ways to concentrate on what’s important and get rid of and what’s not. Here’s one suggestion: make sure your committee reports are as short as possible.  

Members need information (and your analysis) to help them come to decisions – but part of your job should be to promote a business-like approach to the process. Over the years, including as an inspector and a consultant and trainer for Trevor Roberts Associates, I’ve read hundreds of reports. Too many of them are much too long, frequently banging on at great length about stuff that’s either not needed or involves straightforward issues that could be expressed much more simply. We can save time and money by getting straight to the point.

Below are half a dozen top tips for report-writing to help you (and your members) do a proper job with half the paper.

“But”, I hear you say, “our councillors won’t stand for that!” Well, I know some of them enjoy drilling down into every last detail of Environment Health’s observations about the efficacy of fat extractors, or precisely what Mrs Arbuthnott at no.47 didn’t like about the fenestration – but most elected members are busy people who simply want a crisp and focused summary of the facts, and guidance on what they need to take into account before coming to a decision (and surely they’d be delighted if they only had a 20-page agenda to read in bed rather than something resembling War and Peace?).

Here are some examples of “how to lose weight” and feel better about yourself:                   

  • Try fronting each agenda with a covering “guidelines” document explaining the plan-led system, giving examples of material and non-material considerations and, perhaps, listing the top policies that frequently feature in the reports. This way, at least some elements of the individual reports could be dealt with by referring back to this over-arching document, saving pages of repetition.

  • Get the determining issues up front, together with the recommendation – that concentrates the mind.

  • Cut back on the history – would knowing about a planning permission granted in 1997 for a central heating oil tank (not implemented) really help?

  • Don’t bore the pants off the committee by starting with an exhaustive list of policies that might be relevant to the decision – stick to the ones that matter. In fact, why not abandon the list entirely and weave selected references to the key policies into your analysis of the issues as you come to them? I bet this alone would cut most reports by 20 per cent, with absolutely nothing lost. By the way, that’s what inspectors do with most of their decisions.

  • Plain English, please. Instead of asking “whether the proposal would be compatible with policies designed to safeguard the reasonable amenities of nearby residential properties”, try “whether the scheme would cause a loss of privacy for the occupiers of no. 32 Balaclava Street”.

  • Don’t quote representations verbatim – it’s usually enough to concentrate on the gist, and to group representations around issues. If cllr Grimshaw wants more, he’ll have had the agenda for a week and will have plenty of time to read the stuff himself.

I appreciate that, even if you personally go along with these ideas, there has to be a common approach to report-writing which your colleagues (and the committee members) need to sign up to. But hopefully there’s enough here to get the debate going, if you think it’s time you had one.

David Kaiserman is a chartered town planner, senior associate with Trevor Roberts Associates and was previously a non-salaried planning inspector.