Tag Archives: councillors

Breakfast Briefing recap – County councils in the spotlight

By Vivienne Shirley, Senior Consultant

Chelgate Local’s latest breakfast briefing went with a bang last month, as keen delegates braved a miserable rainy morning to gather in Hertfordshire over bacon butties and coffee.

Attendees from titans of the property industry including Taylor Wimpey, Linden Homes, Willmott Dixon and Bidwells took their seats as our very own Cllr Michael Hardware, Chelgate’s director of planning and property, kicked off proceedings. He updated the audience on the crisis at Castle Point, what it might mean for Essex County Council, and the role of county councils in planning more generally.

He was followed by Andrew Taylor, head of planning at Countryside, who took to the stage to stress the need for leadership and stability at county council level to deliver more homes. He noted the importance of open, clear discussions between councillors and developers at the early stages, followed by effective delivery and long-term stewardship – the process doesn’t stop at approval. By working together, councils and housebuilders can provide communities with coherent, durable schemes and much-needed green open space.

David Bogle, chief executive at Hightown Housing Association, then seized the mic to offer a perspective from the view of a housing association operating across Herts – working with 10 district councils as well as Hertfordshire County Council. He talked about the important role county councils play in building sustainable communities, which after all largely centre around highways and schools. David noted it takes Hightown up to two years to get planning in Herts – something a Herts-combined authority might accelerate. He concluded that without radical strategic, county-wide rethinks, it’s unlikely the government will achieve the #MoreBetterFaster homes it’s aiming for.

Cllr Chris White, Hertfordshire county councillor and leader of the opposition at St Albans City and District council, stepped up to share his thoughts from the other side of the fence. He took us through the changing relationship between county councils and district councils in recent years, leading to the current system of district council local plans and a duty to co-operate, with county councils being somewhat ‘left out’. With no clear role for infrastructure authorities, the government’s housing figures are somewhat futile, he noted – the perfect springboard for a lively question and answer session.

Despite a range of perspectives from all angles of the planning and development process, overall our speakers were surprisingly in tune – county councils need to take a proactive role in strategic planning if we’re going to get the #MoreBetterFaster homes this county so desperately needs. Luckily it looks like the government was listening, as Housing Minister Kit Malthouse tweeted about our event shortly afterwards!


Click here to register for our next breakfast briefing on the ‘Impact of an Ageing Population on Housing Provision’ to be held in Kent later this month.

planning committee

Understanding councillors

By Michael Hardware, Director of Planning and Property

We have all at some point come out of a planning committee wondering what had just happened. A perfectly reasonable policy-compliant planning application had been unexpectedly refused for vague and perhaps spurious reasons, or on an issue which you were not aware of.

Although planning committees are not supposed to be political, politics can sometimes get in the way. Members consider applications on their merits, but occasionally conflicting priorities can influence decisions.

Politics never goes away

After all, councillors are politicians. They were elected to represent their wards – if they do not then they will not be elected next time. This is a key motivation and becomes more significant the closer to an election you get. In councils where elections are by thirds, the politics never goes away. Although councillors are still elected for four years, the political groups are always in election mode as there are local elections every year – even on the fourth year, the elections are for counties.

This is exacerbated where a council has a small overall majority. The controlling parties will understandably be paranoid about losing any seats and so will not take decisions which are politically risky. The opposition will be all fired-up as taking control is only an election away – they will be challenging every decision vociferously, probably out of all proportion to the issue at hand!

Similarly, councillors in marginal wards will be particularly susceptible to politics: they know that one wrong move will change that majority resulting in their, or their colleagues, being beaten at the next election. They will want to be seen to be campaigning for the community, fighting for what it wants, and sticking-up for every resident who has an injustice. This, even if it goes against their own personal views, and possibly against those of their party. Similarly, opposition candidates will be over-critical of everything.

Any proposed development will always motivate the noisy minority, creating a perception the community is against these. A good ward councillor will be able to judge whether that is the case and act accordingly. More often than not, however, we will see the ward councillor campaigning against a proposed development for the reasons outlined above.

Even without the influence of elections, there is an inherent conflict of interests: although ward councillors are elected to represent their wards, they are also bound to consider what is good for the community as a whole. This is where the planning committee system works well – the committee is drawn from the wider area and so will have a more detached view and will be able to consider the wider benefits of a proposal. Ward councillors will always be allowed to speak on applications affecting their wards, and where they sit on the committee, may be able to participate in the debate and vote, although they will need to declare the interest. Other councils, however, exclude sitting ward councillors in these circumstances either for that item or for the whole meeting, requiring a substitution.

Avoiding googlies at planning committee

But it is the ‘googly’ at the committee meeting which is the most frustrating: an issue which has not come up before, or you thought had been addressed, suddenly becomes huge on the night and results in a refusal or deferment. Although politics sometimes is the cause of these, it is more often a late issue raised by residents which touches a nerve, or through rumour or hearsay has been blown out of all proportion. Conversations with members before committees should identify these, and hopefully provide time for them to be addressed ahead of the committee.

Whenever contemplating a planning application, it is important for you to understand the political environment you are entering from the outset: the make-up of the council, the balance of power, what wards are up for election and the marginality of those wards. It is also important to know the general position on development, the local issues and the potential for opposition for your development before you start.