I have had questions recently about how to speak at Shropshire Council planning committees and I thought I provide an update on how the system works. Objectors and supporters should understand that planning decisions are a formal process and committee must follow the rulebooks, or risk having their decision overturned at appeal or even in the high court. The dryness, even dullness of planning committee meetings is a testimony of their importance and the seriousness that councillors bring to their duties. Having sat on several committees in my five years plus as councillor, planning is certainly the most arduous duty outside full council. We might spend five minutes discussing one application or it make take an hour, on some occasions longer. Then we are immediately on to the next, usually without a break. But it is also rewarding for councillors on the committee. We spend a lot of time preparing for meetings and recognise that even small applications could have a major impact on people’s lives.
It is important that people understand how the process works. Hence, this is quite a lengthy guide. It is certainly not definitive. It does not cover submitting an application or how to challenge a planning decision in the courts.
Commenting on an application
Guidelines for this are the same as for speaking at a committee, which are set out below. Notionally, members of the public are given 21 days to comment on an application. But this is not a hard deadline (though some other councils insist it is). You are advised to comment within the deadline. But the applicant may then modify the proposal after discussion with planning officers or as technical studies progress. If this is a significant change, there will be a reconsultation which is only notified to those who objected originally. Anyone can submit later comments, though you should recognise that last minute comments may not be taken into account. To ensure comments are taken into account, they should be entered directly onto the planning portal or sent to firstname.lastname@example.org (for the South Planning Committee). You may also wish to copy in the local councillor but sending the comment to the councillor alone will not ensure that it is registered as a comment.
Who decides which applications go to committee?
Planning officers decide 96% of applications under delegated powers from the council. These are mostly for minor schemes but sometimes officers make decisions on more significant applications where there is a clear consensus view in favour or against a scheme.
Applications are considered for a committee decision if they are complex, a major supermarket for example, or have met significant controversy. Or if the town or parish council makes an objection based on material considerations (more on those considerations later). The third circumstance is if the unitary member for the ward calls in the application for committee determination within 21 days of it being published.
There is no automatic right for parish councils or unitary councillors to have applications decided by a committee. The decision on which applications get to committee is made by an agenda setting committee, which involves the planning committee chair, vice chair and senior planning officers. It sits in private. I have not seen any guidance for how these committees operate and their operation remains something of a mystery to me.
The site visit
If an application is to be determined by a committee, members will visit the sites, usually travelling in the “planning bus” – a Shropshire Council minibus – on the morning before the meeting or the day before. The time of the visit is not published but the committee secretary will let you know the time – 01743 257716 for the South Planning Committee.
Members of the public, town and parish councillors and developers can observe the visit and listen to the presentation made by the planning officer and members questions. Note that it can sometimes be difficult to hear what is being said. The site meeting is a private conversation and only committee members and council officers can take part in it. But members of the committee might seek clarification of details from the developer (often it is an agent for the developer), a site owner or a representative of the parish council. They will not seek opinions, just clarify details such as location of boundaries, access and other specific questions to ensure that they fully understand the site and the application. They will not seek information from opponents of a development.
Members of the public and town and parish councillors have no right to access the development site to observe the visit unless invited by the site owner. But they can stand nearby. They can hold up banners. On occasion, the planning committee finds the site locked up so members can’t gain access either!
Speaking at the Committee
Neither the public nor parish councils have a statutory right to speak at planning committees. However, most councils, including Shropshire, allow participation.
If you wish to speak at the South Planning Committee, you should contact the committee secretary as soon as the agenda is announced and no later than two working days before the committee meeting. The committee normally meets on Tuesday afternoons. Objectors are not routinely informed of the committee date. To ensure you are notified, track the application by clicking the [*Track] button in the online planning portal. To book a speaking slot for the South Planning Committee, ring 01743 257716.
In Shropshire, speaking is usually limited to one supporter of the application and one objector. However, at the discretion of the chair, this can be varied. The South Planning Committee will sometimes allow one objector, one supporter, a representative of the town or parish council and the developer to speak. Each speaker will be allowed three minutes. Sometimes the developer is given extra time (on the principle that if objectors speak for, say, six minutes, the promoter of the scheme should be given equal time). Please remember that speaking is at the discretion of the chair and not a statutory right. If several objectors wish to speak, they should collaborate to appoint a spokesperson. Otherwise, the committee chair will select someone to speak.
When you are called to speak, you must use the microphone to ensure that everyone can hear, especially those using the induction loop. The microphone is turned on and off by pressing the button on the right of microphone base. It is on when a red light shows. A clock will be displayed on a screen ahead of you, counting down the three minutes allocated progressively turning from green to red. It is advisable to look up to the clock from any notes you may be reading every now and again so that you are not told to stop speaking in mid-stride. Do not leave the table until the chair has had an opportunity to ask members if they wish to ask you questions.
The unitary member for the ward will often speak in support of the application or against it. Members are allowed five minutes speaking time under the council’s constitution for their right to speak at committees. They will also be monitored by the countdown clock.
If you can, I would strongly advise attending a prior planning committee to see how everything works.
What should you speak about?
Unless you have experience in planning, I would not advise working through all the policies and guidance. Committee members wish to hear about the impact of a proposed scheme on the neighbourhood, for better or for worse. The effect it might have on people’s lives. How it might impact on the environment, issues such as flooding, or tree and habitat loss. Can transport networks cope? They will be interested in sustainability – are there any services in the settlement, for example, and do they have capacity. Good design is of growing importance after changes to national planning guidance.
Committee members will listen carefully and consider whether the points made are material considerations they should consider when making their decision.
One of the most common questions asked is what material considerations are. There is no definitive list of considerations because a material consideration is legally something that is material to the application and must be considered. That means it is question of judgement for the committee. The national Planning Portal provides a handlist of the most common considerations.
There are some things that are not material considerations. The right to a view or a fall in property values are not material. The planning committee cannot take them into account. To these I would add grievances about how the application has been handled by the applicant or the council. Neighbourhood disputes also cannot be considered.
Although the right to a view is not material, loss of privacy, light or access to an existing property are material. (The Binfield Village Society has useful guidance on loss of amenity.)
Land ownership is rarely material. It is quite common for applications to be made by someone who would buy the land if permission is granted. Ownership would be material if access to a site must cross a separate land parcel not owned by the applicant.
Previous planning history is material. If consent has already been granted for development of a site, it is very difficult to reject a revised application unless it is significantly worse than the agreed scheme. One of the most difficult areas for the committee is retrospective applications where the applied for work has already been undertaken. Members must decide on the proposal as a new application, as though the illegally built structure did not exist.
Future planning history is not material. Residents and members of the committee might suspect that the application is a Trojan Horse that presages further development. But committee members are only allowed to pass judgement on the specific application before them.
The committee meeting
The agenda for the planning committee is published one week before the meeting on the council website. Printed copies of the agenda may be available at the committee meeting but this cannot not be relied on. There is public wifi in the committee room and a hearing loop.
Each application on the agenda will carry an officer recommendation to approve or reject the proposal. This is guidance to the committee, not an instruction on how the committee should act. Otherwise why have a committee?
See House of Commons Library: Must planning committees follow officers’ advice in reaching decisions?
Planning committees can be lengthy, sometimes rather dull and nearly always technical. They can be difficult to follow if you are not familiar with the planning rulebook. The overarching rulebook is the National Planning Policy Framework and the associated national planning practice guidance. Locally, we have the core strategy and SAMDev. Both are being revised but planning committee members must work within existing guidance. Members and officers must also take account of specialist guidance, including on heritage, the environment, flooding.
There are eleven councillors on the committee. If members can’t attend a meeting, they are expected to provide a substitute though this doesn’t always happen. The meeting will be attended by planning officers, specialist officers if required, and a member of the council’s legal team.
Committee members cannot vote on applications in their own ward. They can make a statement but then leave the table to sit in the audience or leave the room (that’s a matter of choice).
If a member has predetermined their view on an application not in their ward before hearing the arguments in the planning committee, they must declare predetermination and leave the room before the committee considers the application. The same applies if members have conflicts of interest, such as a close relationship with the applicant.
Officers are present to advise members but sometimes a lively debate is struck up between councillors and officers when they have sharply different interpretations of a scheme.
At some point during the discussion, a councillor will propose that the committee accepts the officers’ recommendation or that it rejects it. Sometimes, the proposal is amended either by a formal proposal or informally as councillors clarify what they are trying to achieve. If an amendment is proposed, it must be voted on before the original proposal. With complex or controversial applications, this can become confusing for people observing the meeting.
If councillors are minded to reject the officer recommendation, they must provide material reasons for doing so. This is usually straightforward when councillors want to approve an application that officers have advised should be rejected. But where they wish to reject a scheme officers want to approve they must cite specific planning policies that would justify rejection. These must be robust in case the applicant appeals to the planning inspectorate. That can be hard work for members. Councillors can also decide to defer a decision on an application to a future meeting if they have concerns about aspects of the scheme and want officers and the developer to resolve those concerns.
Councillors cannot vote on political lines. This certainly doesn’t happen on the South Planning Committee. Any attempt by party whips to instruct voting is likely to be judged as maladministration by the local government ombudsman and the courts.
Applicants whose scheme is rejected can appeal to the planning inspectorate. The applicant and council will then agree the appeal process. It can be conducted entirely by a written exchange, involve an informal hearing or be a full blown public inquiry which operates like a court hearing.
If an application is approved, the only appeal that opponents can make is to apply for a judicial review at the high court. This requires specialist advice and, inevitably, money.