Industry Eye: Shake-up in the planning system will highlight need for some robust advice and well-managed strategy

The Localism Bill was published in December 2010 heralding a new era in local democracy and a much-needed step change to the ailing planning system – and yes, that's what the last government said too!

While the range of proposed changes may be broad, the heart of the matter for industry, the house building sector and business in general, is how actual decisions are made.

In this respect, Government Ministers have announced their intention to bring greater 'freedom' to councillors as a means of achieving the goal of enhancing council accountability and responsiveness as part of this 'localism' agenda.

All a little insignificant you may think, but something that could have a notable impact upon the development sector and individuals pursuing development schemes, who rely on the endorsement and approval by councillors to achieve their end goal.

In an open letter, the Minister for Housing and Local Government, Grant Shapps, introduces the possibility of councillors pronouncing their views and campaigning on issues (particularly important with regards to contentious issues such as planning) from an early stage without claims of bias or predetermination. This is in stark contrast to the present situation where councillors are only fully able to publicly air their views when considering a planning application in the relative safety of a committee room.

This presents a double edged sword for applicants/developers with an ability to lobby members more fully (should they be amenable) and gain a fuller appreciation of possible support before the 'judgement day' of the planning committee – a strategy can then be devised and the best case put forward in the knowledge of issues to address and what will gain support.

But equally, this may easily result in councillors taking a premature and negative view on a case, carried on a tide of local vociferous (if perhaps not numerous) objections for instance, as opposed to taking a more considered and balanced view. A councillor's primary loyalty will understandably, and with an eye to the ballot box, lie with his/her constituents.

This is reflected in Shapps' statement aiming to give councillors "the freedom to campaign and represent their constituents without the fear of being accused of bias" while also needing "to be open-minded at the point of decision in the sense of listening to all the arguments, and weighing them against their preferred outcome, before actually voting".

This may provide clarity and openness to the decision-making process and legitimise what we all expect occurs anyway in terms of discussions in dark corridors, but where does this leave the developer and applicant faced with councillors now perhaps somewhat compelled by the local electorate to take an immediate view and also to be seen to represent their constituents. The need for robust advice and a well-managed strategy will never be more important.

Some councillors will be able to use this new-found freedom effectively but others may struggle in a pending era where increasingly the wheel that squeaks the loudest gets the most oil!

David Boulton is a partner in Carter Jonas' Yorkshire-based planning team.

CW 29/1/11