auntysarah: (Default)
posted by [personal profile] auntysarah at 12:45pm on 25/08/2010
In Cambridge, all City (District) Councillors have to do planning permission. Trivial stuff (can I put a sign in front of my shop please?) is handled by the planning officers under delegated powers. Big stuff (can I build a new shopping centre/development of 50 houses/90 acre cat flossing complex) is handled by the planning committee, and stuff in between (can I build a new bungalow in my garden/change this shop into flats/etc.) is handled by the area committees. Every councillor is on an area committee, so every councillor has to do planning.

I had my first area committee last week (technically it was my second, but my first was while I was in the US., so I had to give my apologies), and so I got to hear planning applications for the first time.

I'm not going to go into the ones we heard (if you're really interested, you can dig around on and find them - it's all on there). The planning applications were heard later in the evening, after we had discussed development of public facilities, policing priorities, etc., and the first thing I noticed was that a bunch of councillors thwarted the "everyone must do planning" bit by buggering off in the tea break, so if you are a Cambridge resident I would only urge you to go along to your next area committee to see if your elected representative is doing their job - there are elections to the city council 3 years out of every 4 and the next is in May 2011...

Anyway, the second thing I learned is that, despite being daunted, it's actually a really fun activity for those of a slightly geeky persuasion. The way it works is that a planning officer makes their reccomendation, and it is up to councillors whether to accept that recommendation, or diverge from it. The divergence could be something as simple as changing the conditions (e.g. "Actually, we will let you open your shop until 20:00 and not just 18:00", or "This window has to be frosted", and so on), or disregarding the recommendation completely and voting to decline permission where acceptance was recommended, or vice versa.

The catch is that you can't do this freely - there are rules, and that's where the geeky bit comes in. In addition to central government rules and guidance, there is also "The Local Plan", which is the council's own planning policy, describing what sort of development is to be done in Cambridge. Any point where you diverge from officer recommendations needs to be done in a way that can be justified by a reasonable interpretation of the Local Plan.

That bit is the best bit, IMO. Not only am I helping my community by trying to ensure the best urban environment is provided, but there's this dance of strategy going on between the councillors and the developer. The latter will want to get as much as they can with the smallest number of concessions as possible, in general, and we are there to try and keep them honest. We have to do it in such a way that anything we rule on stands up to scrutiny however, otherwise the developer could not only get the decision overturned at appeal - they may get costs awarded as well, if we are seen to have acted unreasonably.

Hopefully we can meet somewhere in the middle, in a position that everyone is reasonably happy with, and getting there is the challenge, and one that I think I'm going to quite enjoy over my term of office.

Hmm, wonder if I should apply to be on the central planning committee next year?


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