Network conference puts localism responsibilities under the spotlight

Sheffield will play host to county, district and parish councillors as they get updated on planning practice and the government's imminent shift of decision-making powers to local communities, reports Andrew Matheson.

Planning councillors face a heavy burden of local decision-making and it is entirely appropriate that they should have the opportunity annually to share experiences, receive some updates and have the opportunity to learn from some good practice examples.

In each of the past three years the RTPI Politicians in Planning Network (PIPA) has organised a conference on a theme relevant to local councillors who fulfil planning responsibilities, whether at the county, district or parish level.

It has become apparent that within a single day it is not possible to tackle all of the UK planning systems. Scotland has its own PIPA events and we hope that Wales and Northern Ireland will follow soon. But thanks to support from the Planning Advisory Service, annual events are possible in England.

The event is taken to a different location each year and this year the conference will be at Sheffield Hallam University on Saturday 6 November. The theme, in line with the new interest in localism, is planning and localism - delivering community aspirations.

The conference will be welcomed to Sheffield by Janice Sidebottom, who is a local councillor, chairwoman of one of Sheffield City Council's planning committees and a qualified planner. What more appropriate way could there be for the conference to be welcomed to a city which has faced huge challenges to regenerate and re-vision itself?

The short walk from Sheffield station to the university venue for the conference and onward to the heart of the city gives a dramatic glimpse of the major transformation that has attracted new enterprise, people and tourists.

At the 2008 conference the then secretary of state Hazel Blears said how pleased she was that PIPA exists to support local planning decision-makers. And this year the conference will welcome the new planning minister Bob Neill, who will speak of his own and the government's aspirations for planning alongside the new localism.

By the date of the conference attendees will have some idea of the scale of change likely to arise from the public spending review but will probably not know the final shape of the decentralisation and localism bill, expected later in November. Doubtless some of the questions to the minister will explore some of the much anticipated implications from the local perspective.

Topics to be covered on the agenda include improving the application experience, delivering for local communities, planning and climate change and delivering the planning service.

Beside the number of plenaries, at the core of every PIPA conference, by popular demand, are workshop sessions where more specialist or detailed subjects can be investigated in smaller, more participative groupings.

By these means the delegates will get the chance to learn from the experience of others. Offering a local authority perspective, a Hull City Council member will outline their approach to dialogue around large applications. Special interest groups are represented by the Community Land Trust Network, which will explain its potential to help. CABE will outline its guide to good design.

Always popular is the chance to have a taster of a planning game that might be used by the local planning committee and others to explore possibilities without the pressure for real decisions. For 2010 the Regener8 game will be in the spotlight. These are just a sample of the dozen sessions on offer during the day with a range that will have appeal at all planning levels.

If you are a local councillor, a free place is available for you to claim. If you are not a councillor, you are nonetheless certain to know or come across a few. Please do send an email or three to encourage your local councillors to have the benefit of a free place.

The government has confirmed that local people and local councillors will be in the driving seat of the new planning system. So what could be more important than being prepared?

- Andrew Matheson is PIPA network manager. For more information on the conference or to book, please call 01789 763006, email or visit as soon as possible.

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