Beware, new councillors

By Michael Hardware, Director of Planning and Property

A huge number of new councillors have been elected across the country. These are largely from the LibDem, independent, green and resident groups with little or no experience of either being a councillor or being in power.

New councillors bound into office on the back of huge promises and aspirations, straight into the brick wall of local government: even at the best of times, the wheels of local council turn very slowly and to have any impact will take considerable time and diplomacy to affect.

Similarly, a number of councils have changed administration with the smaller opposition parties taking a far greater role. It is a difficult transition from being an opposition councillor to being in power; the realisation of the limitations of the power of being a councillor, even in administration, can be stark.

One area where new members do have an immediate impact is on planning committees. Officers often shield committees with a significant proportion of new members from having to make major decisions in the first few months until they have had the training to enable them to perform their quasi-judicial duties properly. Planning committees are not supposed to be political, but new councillors do have difficulty compromising their political views and aspirations with the requirements of planning law and the needs of the wider community.

Planning applicants need to be aware of this and assess changes in administration and planning committee composition. There may be some strange decisions, some obviously political decisions, and some frustrated officers, over the next few months.

There will also be a reticence for new councillors to engage with developers, as they will not be confident enough to be impartial, and frightened of doing something that may immediately undermine their position. These new councillors will need to be given due consideration, and coached through this difficult stage of their political careers.