The Localism Act was given Royal Assent on the 15th November. Two months down the line, a series of provisions are due to come into force, among them is the provisions of Section 25, introducing new guidance on bias and predetermination – for which the warning signals were fired by Grant Shapps with his letter to Local Authorities in January 2011. Until now, members of a planning committee have had to guard against revealing any indication of how they may vote on an application when it is determined. A councillor elected on a platform of opposing a specific development proposal, or who expressed strong opinions in public, was advised that they should not vote on the application if he or she were a member of the planning committee.
On the 15th January, a lot of this changes. While elected members cannot appear to have a closed mind in determining an application, short of announcing which way they intend to vote at committee, they will be free to make their views known, to enter into discussions with opponents and proponents and to criticise or praise development proposals as they see fit.
What does this mean? We can expect savvy protestors to hit the phones asking to set up meetings with planning councillors; and as soon as a planning councillor goes on the public record to criticise a particular scheme, the chances of him or her subsequently changing tack are drastically reduced. Equally nimble developers will also be reaching for their phones to speak with planning councillors, no longer expecting to be fobbed off on the grounds of probity. However, in reality, we can expect many officers and Councillors to continue to seek to err on the side of caution, to avoid the risk of legal action or judicial review. It may take some time for the changes to filter down to members and for councillors to welcome engagement – but welcome it they should if they are to embrace Localism.
The whole process of pre-application consultation will need to be carefully calibrated with key elected members briefed in the right order ahead of wider community engagement to ensure that councillors understand the developer’s proposals. The changes to predetermination represent both a significant risk and a real opportunity for developers in winning planning permission. Those who have mastered the arts of community and political engagement will be best placed to prosper.
Written by Sam Schofield