Planning system - mandatory training for elected members: consultation analysis

Analysis of the responses from the public consultation on mandatory training in planning for elected members

Executive Summary

This report summarises responses to the recent Scottish Government consultation on mandatory training on planning for elected members. The Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 included mandatory training for elected members as part of a package of measures for the planning system; once in force, these will prohibit elected members from carrying out certain planning functions if they have not completed the required training. The specific functions affected and the training requirements that elected members must meet will be set out in subsequent regulations.

The consultation opened on 13 July 2023 and closed on 26 October 2023. In total 120 consultation responses were received, of which 77 were from groups or organisations and 43 from individual members of the public.

Who should undertake the training?

The consultation first asked whether the determination of planning applications should be the only function that elected members are prohibited from doing until training requirements have been completed. Less than half of respondents (45%) agreed, and the remaining 55% disagreed. Support for the proposal included a view that the more complex, technical considerations involved in determining planning applications mean that this function specifically should be limited to those who have completed the required training. It was noted that elected members may not have the required planning background, and training was seen as important in improving the consistency of decisions.

The most common point raised by those opposed was that mandatory planning training should also apply across other planning functions. Some of these respondents saw a need for more detailed training specifically around the determination of planning applications, but it was suggested that a core level of training should be mandatory across all planning functions. Elected members' role in the development plan process and other planning functions was seen as having potential to significantly impact the local planning system, and it was suggested that training is required to ensure the quality of these functions.

The majority of respondents (64%) did not agree that training requirements should vary depending on whether elected members participate in a planning committee, Full Council or Local Review Body (LRB). Respondents suggested that, although they have distinct functions, planning committees and LRBs are required to deal with the same material considerations and follow the same processes – and therefore require similar levels of planning knowledge.

Those who agreed with varying training requirements suggested that these should reflect the different types of decisions and planning issues being considered. This was most commonly highlighted for elected members who participate in the LRB and/or planning committee; it was suggested that enhanced training may be required in these circumstances.

What should the training cover?

A large majority of respondents (79%) agreed that mandatory training should be focused on the key principles and knowledge of the planning system. This was seen as an appropriate starting point to ensure that elected members have the required grounding in relevant legislation and policy. It was also suggested that this broad focus would ensure that training applies across all planning authority areas. Those in favour of 'higher level' training content also noted that there should be scope for individual authorities to provide more tailored localised training where necessary, and for elected members to access professional advice when making planning decisions.

Other respondents were of the view that training should go beyond key principles and knowledge. It was suggested that this is necessary to ensure that elected members can put their knowledge of planning policy into practice to make informed and reasoned planning decisions.

The majority of respondents (84%) agreed with the proposed list of topics for mandatory training; (i) a plan led system, (ii) planning application process, (iii) decision making, (iv) the role of elected members, and (v) post decision. This included a view that the topics are consistent with the key purpose of mandatory training being to ensure informed and balanced planning decisions. In this context, some saw a potential need for greater emphasis of topics around decision making considerations and processes. Those who disagreed with the proposed list of training topics expressed concern that the relatively extensive set of topics may not be achievable, and saw a need for training to focus on the key areas of most relevance to elected members.

Respondents suggested a range of additions or amendments to the list of training topics, including from those who agreed with the proposed list. These were most commonly focused on decision-making at committee - seen by some as a key focus for mandatory training – including reference to elected member understanding of related processes and assessments, and the implications of planning refusals. Other suggestions related to ensuring elected members understand wider strategic priorities, processes for the different types of planning application and consents, understanding of elected members' role and relevant procedures, and post decision issues around appeals and the LRB.

How should the training be delivered?

Amongst the four proposed options for delivery of mandatory training, the most commonly supported were option 2 (content developed by the Scottish Government and delivered in-person by each local authority) and option 3 (delivered online with the Scottish Government developing or procuring an online course). A substantial proportion of respondents selected the 'none of the above' option including some who suggested 'hybrid' approaches based on combining two or more of the proposed options, for example to incorporate online and in-person elements.

Respondents also commented more broadly on the key principles of whether training should be delivered online and/or in person, and how content should be developed. There was some support for an online option on the basis that this would allow elected members to access training at a time that suits them, and for training to be provided quickly where required. However, others were of the view that an online-only approach will not deliver the required quality or depth of learning, and saw in-person training as a more effective option. This was primarily linked to concerns that online training would deny elected members the opportunity to interact with training providers and share their experiences – although some noted that online training can still be 'live' to allow for this kind of interaction.

In terms of how training content is developed, there was support for the Scottish Government developing standard content to be delivered locally. This was seen as having benefits in allowing planning authorities to focus their limited resources on area-specific issues, and ensuring consistency of training content across planning authorities. Others – especially planning authority respondents - suggested that Scottish Government-defined key principles would be sufficient to ensure a consistent approach to delivery of training. Planning authority-developed and delivered training content was also seen as having potential benefits for tailoring content to changing local contexts, elected members' attendance, and building relationships between planning officers and elected members.

The majority of respondents (83%) agreed with a requirement for elected members to have passed a test before being allowed to undertake a planning decision. This was seen as important in reinforcing learning outcomes, and assessing the impact of training for elected members' understanding. Several respondents saw a test as especially important where elected members have completed their training online.

Other respondents raised concerns around the principle of a test, including a view that this may encourage participants to simply learn the key facts necessary to pass rather than ensuring elected members have the understanding required for good planning decisions. Reflecting these concerns, some preferred an approach based on continuous learning and assessment, rather than a single test. Potential issues were also raised around the implementation of a test, most commonly related to the proposal that elected members would be able to retake the test until a pass is achieved. Some saw a need for clear processes to deal with circumstances where an elected member fails the test on multiple occasions.

Requiring elected members to retake training at specified periods was seen as important in ensuring that members' knowledge of planning legislation and policy remains current. The most commonly supported of the proposed options for how often elected members should be required to retake training was once every election cycle (preferred by 40%). This was described as a proportionate approach to minimise the administrative burden, and it was noted that planning authorities could supplement this with more frequent local discretionary training. A further 29% felt that training should be retaken every year, with this seen as necessary to keep pace with ongoing national and local planning policy developments.

How will the training be monitored?

A large majority (91%) agreed that elected member's completion of mandatory training should be made available to the public, with these respondents referring to transparency, accountability and public trust or confidence in the planning system. It was also suggested that the proposal could help to avoid accusations that elected members are not fully aware of the system or competent to determine any application. Those opposed to the proposal noted that mandatory training would mean that elected members cannot sit on planning applications committee or local review committees without having passed, and some saw this as disproportionate to the outcome required.

The majority of respondents (77%) agreed that the information provided within PPF/statutory annual reports and on local authority websites are sufficient if elected members' completion of training is made available to the public. This was described as proportionate, and sufficient to support monitoring and reporting. It was also noted that the approach would avoid development of an additional reporting mechanism. Others were of the view that the proposed approach would not be sufficient, and suggested additional reporting routes. These included via agendas or minutes connected to planning decisions, each sitting of the Planning Committee and LRB, as part of a register of all member's completed training, and in all staff governance committee papers.

Comments around the best ways to monitor the effects of mandatory training for elected members included reference to challenges and/or potential difficulties in monitoring long-term impact. This included, for example, that it would entail defining what 'better' planning decisions would be. In terms of the type of information that could be gathered, there was reference to gathering feedback from elected members, feedback from users of planning services, and to consulting with Community Councils, and planning officers. Possible performance indicators referenced by respondents included elected members' attendance at planning committee, planning approvals in the face of objections and/or against the advice of planning officers, and appeals-related indicators such as the number of planning appeals and the percentage of successful appeals where expenses are awarded.

Impact assessments

Relatively few respondents commented on the impact assessments undertaken as part of the consultation, and some of these simply noted that the impact assessments seem to be comprehensive, rigorous and fair. More substantive comments most commonly related to the Equality Impact Screening Assessment, including that applying the requirement to all elected members involved in planning decisions would mean there is no overarching discrimination against any person with protected characteristics. It was also noted that training must be inclusive so as not to discriminate against elected members with protected characteristics. Other comments included support for the implementation of mandatory training being cost-neutral to planning authorities, suggestions that improving the quality of planning decisions would support a fairer Scotland, and that a full Island Communities Impact Assessment might be of value.



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