Planning applications decided at Committee meetingsThe Local Government Act 1972 allows the Local Planning Authority to arrange for the discharge any of its functions by a Committee, Sub-Committee, a council officer, or by any other Local Authority. For Committee decisions, a planning officer, often referred to as the case officer, will prepare a formal report on the proposal recommending whether or not permission should be granted. This report is then considered by the Planning Committee, which is made up of elected councillors, who make the decision.
How is the conduct of elected members regulated?
Under the Localism Act 2011 each local authority is required to adopt a local Code of Conduct that sets out the expectations as to the conduct of members in carrying out their official duties. The Local Authority must also keep a register of Members’ interests such as where they work, any property they own, etc.
The Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government publication ‘Openness and transparency on personal interests: a guide for councillors gives practical information about members’ personal interests and the arrangements regarding Councillors’ behaviour introduced by the Localism Act 2011.
Can a Councillor who has represented constituents interested in a planning application be accused of predetermination or bias, if they subsequently speak or vote on that application?Councillors may have strong views on a proposed decision, and may have expressed those views in public, and still participate in a decision. These will include political views and manifesto commitments. The key issue is that the member ensures that their predisposition does not prevent them from consideration of all the other factors that are relevant to a decision, such as Committee reports, supporting documents and the views of those commenting on the application. In other words, the member retains an “open mind” until voting on the application.
Section 25 of the Localism Act 2011 confirms this position by providing that a decision will still be lawful notwithstanding an allegation of bias or predetermination “just because” a Councillor has done something that would indicate what view they may take in relation to a matter relevant to a decision. However, if a member has done something more than indicate a view on a decision, this may be unlawful bias or predetermination. If a Member has made up their mind up on a decision before considering or hearing all the relevant evidence this is known as predetermination, and is not allowed and could make the decision unlawful. If it is unlawful, in exceptional cases they can be quashed by local residents, applying to the High Court for what is known as "judicial review".
Bias can also arise from a Member’s relationships or interests, as well as their state of mind. The legal test is: “whether the fair-minded and informed observer, having considered the facts, would conclude that there was a real possibility that the councillor was biased’. Normally, at the start of a Planning Committee meeting, the Chair may ask for any declarations of interests and at this stage the Committee Members have the chance to explain if there may be any conflict or choose to abstain from the vote. Often there are officers from the Council’s Legal Team present at Committee to ensure the decision is taken in a lawful manner.
Councillors who are not part of the Planning Committee can of course speak about an application at Committee but they would not have a vote.
How must elected Councillors consider planning applications?
The small number of Local authority Councillors who sit on the Planning Committee must represent the interests of the whole community and maintain an open mind when considering planning applications. Where Councillors take decisions on planning applications they must do so in accordance with the Development Plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise. Local opposition or support for a proposal is not in itself a ground for refusing or granting planning permission. Councillors can choose to determine the application in accordance with an officer’s recommendation, or they can add additional conditions to a grant of permission. Alternatively they can choose to go against an officer’s recommendation, whether that is to grant or refuse permission. If permission is to be refused this must be for material planning reasons.