Continuing the series in which our Clinic experts provide a guide to those difficult problems that can trip up the unwary.
This week, John Winter on approaching planning committees: I want to build a bungalow on land I have inherited. How do I get planning permission? Applications for planning consent are made to the planning department of the local authority in whose area the proposal is located. The application is handled by the officers of the planning department who submit it to the planning committee, usually with a recommendation one way or the other. So, who makes the final decision? The planning committee will listen to their officers’ advice, then make up their own minds. The planning committee consists of councillors who are elected and unpaid members of the local authority. The officers are salaried employees of the local authority. How can I be sure that the system is fair? Councillors often have weighty decisions to make that frequently involve large sums of money. They are therefore constrained by codes and protocols designed to help them both to act fairly and to be seen to act fairly.
They are obliged to declare an interest and to refrain from voting if the item under discussion affects them directly. They are supposed to declare if they have been approached by a person who wishes to persuade them to support or to oppose a project and to refuse to listen to such people if they intend to vote on the issue. So, before the vote I cannot approach any individual councillors on the committee about the merits of my application? No. It may seem odd that lobbying a Member of Parliament on an issue of national importance is all part of the democratic process, but lobbying a councillor on a local planning issue is taboo. However, that is the situation according to the codes. If you want to further your case, you have two options:
You can write to the clerk of the committee, who can distribute a copy of the letter to all committee members. The clerk may also send a copy to opponents of the scheme, who may be invited to respond by letter; this letter will also be distributed to members.
Or, you can write to the clerk of the committee and ask to speak at the planning committee meeting in person. However, you should be aware that if this request is granted, opponents may be given a similar facility to speak at the meeting.
All is designed to be fair and be seen to be scrupulously fair. John Winter runs his own architectural practice.