Contributed by Dr A. Drakakis-Smith
The size of the Planning Committee of the Newcastle Borough Council and compulsory training for Councillors who serve on it are to be discussed in a forthcoming meeting of the Planning Committee with a view to improving operational effectiveness and the scope for the further delegation of decisions. Although in August 2007 the Committee was reduced from 34 to 24 members, Newcastle’s Planning Committee remains one of the largest in the County. The average of all Staffordshire’s districts is around 19.
The discussion paper suggests that the average membership in attendance at any one meeting is around 19 with only 16 members attending 80 per cent of meetings, and only 2 members attending all meetings.
The main argument set out for a smaller Committee was that it would be cheaper to train members and it would be easier to manage. It would also sort out those members who were actively interested in and knowledgeable about planning issues from those who were not. This might produce more competition for places on the Committee and thus a higher calibre of Councillor more fitted to tackle what has become an increasingly complex area of local authority administration. It would also mean that more decisions would be delegated – presumably to paid Officers – which might not be a good thing.
It was felt that the benefits of a large Committee were that it would be more representative, it would be more difficult to influence and control by small cliques, and a larger group would be more suitable for discussing planning policy issues. It seems that the attendance at Policy Meetings has been ‘very low’ which indicates that ‘the connection between control and policy is not being made as strongly as it should be’. As it stands Newcastle’s Planning Committee is the only one in Staffordshire to use the same Committee for development control and for policy matters.
Whatever Members decide, perhaps size does not matter. What does is that every Member who sits on the Planning Committee is well trained and prepared beforehand so that any debate on planning matters and issues can be useful, and any decisions made are based on information and not intuition or the size of a 106 Agreement with a developer. Although Newcastle currently has one of the largest Planning Committees in the County, in terms of performance it ranks 6 out of 9 – which seems to indicate that that it is perhaps not quantity but quality of Members elected and Officers paid that really counts. After all, this service is not free. We pay for it.