Whatever MPs think, councillors must be up to speed on planning

It may not be a best-seller, but this week's Commons communities and local government select committee report on planning skills should be required reading for ministers, officials, councillors, planners, developers, lobbyists and indeed anyone with a stake in how this country functions.

Although it raises many points for debate, four are worth highlighting.

The MPs make a welcome attack on the jargon that is damaging the profession's image. Secondly, they rightly accept that chief planning officers' status should be statutorily protected. This is vital to confirm planning's role in responding to today's and tomorrow's challenges. Ministers cannot continue to bury their heads in the sand.

The committee's call to channel a portion of planning delivery grant into training is also noteworthy. Some planning departments spend as little as £100 per head on training a year, a sum dwarfed by other professions' investment in staff development. Yet grant allocations are being unrealistically skewed towards housing delivery, a factor now more than ever beyond council control.

But the MPs are wrong to reject compulsory training for councillors on planning committees. One of developers' biggest gripes with the planning system is that after heavy investment in community consultation, pre-application talks and close working with officers, they find members are prepared to torpedo proposals on the grounds of some ill-defined "local knowledge".

No-one is suggesting that councillors should become so technically adept as to second-guess their professional advisers. But they should have a thorough grounding in the principles and procedures of the planning system before they get into a decision-making role. It is bizarre to propose that people taking decisions with profound long-term effects should not be obliged to understand the consequences or to claim that they are too busy to do so.

As the committee concedes, its report is only the latest in a long line of inquiries into planning's challenges. How many more of these reviews and investigations do we need before something is done to resolve them?


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