Development Department Research ProgrammeResearch Findings No. 77 2000
Review of the Experience of Community Councils as Statutory Consultees on Planning Applications
Ewen McCaig, MVA
Community councils were given the status of statutory consultees for planning applications on 1st April 1996. From that time, planning authorities were required to inform community councils about planning applications received and consult with them on request. This study examines administrative arrangements between planning authorities and community councils, the role of community councils and the effectiveness of community council involvement in local planning matters.
- The administrative arrangements put in place by planning authorities reflected PAN 47 guidance; most community councils and planning authorities were broadly satisfied with the arrangements.
- Statutory consultation could be automatically offered for specific types of area or application, or initiated by the planning authority. However, community councils had initiated the majority of consultation, and that was widely held to be appropriate.
- Community council representations more often objected to, than supported, applications.
- Community councils sometimes felt the presumption in favour of development consistent with the local plan left their representations ineffective as policy decisions had already been made.
- Community councillors needed to consult with other council members and this could delay responses to planning applications. If decisions were delegated to a nominee(s), free to take decisions independently, there was a risk that these might not reflect the community council view as a whole.
- PAN 47 and planning authority guidance is that community councils should not become involved in minor applications. However, many wished to do so because they felt that these could erode the character of an area in a piecemeal way.
- Planning authorities and community councils agreed that there was an outstanding need for training to enhance the effectiveness of community council involvement in the planning process.
- Nearly all community councillors felt they should be consulted on local plan development. Two-stage consultation appeared to be needed: consultation on strategy, perhaps through bringing community councils together for discussions, then consultation on a draft plan.
This research was commissioned to examine the experiences of community councils as statutory consultees on planning applications since they were given that status on 1 April 1996. The research included consultation with community councils, planning authorities and other interested parties. The advisory group that guided the project included members of the Scottish Executive, the Association of Scottish Community Councils, COSLA and the Scottish Society of Directors of Planning.
The principal methods used in the research were postal surveys of community councils and planning authorities followed by planning authority area case studies.
The level and nature of involvement in planning matters by individual community councils varied greatly, as did perceptions of their role and input held by planning officers, elected members, developers and amenity groups. There was therefore no clearly identifiable local model of good practice.
Although variations of detail were found, administrative systems were broadly similar across all planning authorities. This was not surprising because the administrative arrangements reflected the advice given in PAN 47. Most community councils and planning authorities found these arrangements to be reasonably effective. However, effective administration, though appreciated, was less important to community councils than the quality of liaison and the feeling that their views were taken into account.
Generally, consultation was initiated by community councils following notification on the weekly list. Some planning authorities initiated consultation for very significant applications. There was little use of, or demand for, automatic consultation for specific types of area or application. Most community councils were satisfied with the provision of plans and other information and relationships with individual planning officers were satisfactory. The planning officers were felt to be helpful, though busy. However, the quality of liaison was felt to be less effective following initial consultation, ie when applications were changed or more information became available.
Community councils appreciated being informed of decisions and given reasons for these decisions. However, some felt that, because of the presumption in favour of development, applications that were consistent with the local plan could be granted without a clear reason, i.e. because there was no reason to refuse. Some also felt that their representations were ineffective because policy decisions had already been taken.
Over half of planning authorities said that late responses from community councils were often, or sometimes, a problem. Community councils often said timescales were problematic, usually because of the need to consult with other members or with the community. It did not appear that making minor changes to time allowances would make much difference. Nearly all planning authorities did their best to operate the system flexibly and accommodate late responses.
Time could be saved if community councils delegated decision making processes to a nominee or small sub-group but there was a risk that the views of the community councils as a whole would not always be represented, or that that might appear to be the case. It was occasionally said that individual community councillors would pursue personal agendas.
It was widely agreed that there was an outstanding need for training in the areas of material matters under planning legislation; awareness of key planning processes and terminology; knowledge of local development plans and local policy. Many also felt that general training was needed covering the role of community councils in the planning system and that this would increase the effectiveness of their involvement.
It is difficult for planning authorities to meet this large training backlog and also to train new community councillors. Most authorities do not have plans for systematic training because they feel they cannot prioritise resources for this task. A possibility would be to prepare instruction material. Currently available material is somewhat fragmented, inaccessible and not written with the needs of community councillors in mind.
The Role of Community Councils
Community councils' perceptions of their role varied. Many saw it as primarily to resist development, though not indiscriminately. Some felt that their representations had little chance of success because applications were consistent with planning policy. They felt that providing input at development planning stage on a case by case basis was less satisfactory than being consulted on policy and local planning. However, the statutory role was welcomed although it was felt by some to be insufficient.
Most community councils felt they had a responsibility to comment on minor applications, although this is contrary to PAN 47 advice. They felt these could erode the character of an area. Perhaps more effective consultation on policy would make it less necessary for community councils to concern themselves with individual minor cases.
Community councils believed that they represented their communities as fairly as possible. Very mixed views were expressed by planning officers, elected members and others but, on balance, it appeared that community council input had a tendency to increase planning authorities' awareness of local issues and views.
Working relationships between community councils and planning authorities varied in effectiveness. Generally they were held to be quite good, though with room for improvement. Good relationships were enhanced when community councils had effective and positive consultation with elected members. Most consultees in the study, even those community councillors who felt that their views were not always listened to, believed that community councils did sometimes have an influence on planning committee decisions.
Many community councils had met with developers to discuss applications. Some community councillors felt that details of some planning applications were agreed informally prior to submission. They were not involved and therefore could not influence details that they might think important. Meetings with developers provided them with some influence. Although the meetings could be beneficial, issues of manipulation, or possible corruption, were also raised.
Nearly all community councils wanted a role in local planning and it was felt that this could lead to benefits at development control stage. Consultation at planning stage might be easier in some ways because less knowledge of planning procedures would be required. Two-stage consultation appeared to be needed: consultation on strategy, perhaps through bringing community councils together for discussions, then consultation on a draft plan.
About The Study
The study involved a number of elements:
- The inception phase involved initial discussions with the advisory group and a small number of other consultees, including three planning authorities, Planning Aid Scotland, and the Commission for Local Administration in Scotland. This helped develop the research agenda and postal survey questionnaires.
- The next phase involved a postal survey of planning authorities. Responses were received from 29 out of the 32 authorities.
- A postal survey of community councils was undertaken at the same time. All community councils were included. Questionnaires were sent to community council secretaries, but, as far as possible, were to be completed by nominees. A response rate of 49% was achieved.
- Case studies were undertaken in five planning authority areas of varying urban/rural characteristics. The areas were City of Edinburgh, City of Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Scottish Borders and South Ayrshire. Within each case study a meeting was held with planning officers and a focus group of community council representatives was conducted. Following this, about 30 telephone interviews were conducted with a selection of developers, agents, amenity groups and elected members.
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