Why less is more when it comes to writing committee reports

Development management officers need not rewrite War and Peace when compiling their committee reports, insists David Kaiserman.

Paperwork: less is more (pic: Carst van der Molen via Flickr)
Paperwork: less is more (pic: Carst van der Molen via Flickr)

If you're involved in development management, you're probably very busy. In which case, you'll be looking for ways to concentrate on what's important and get rid of what's not. Here is one suggestion - make sure your committee reports are as short as possible.

Members need information - and your analysis - to help them come to decisions, but part of your job should be to promote a business-like approach to the process. Over the years, including time spent as an inspector, I have read hundreds of reports. Too many of them are too long, frequently banging on at great length about stuff that is either not needed or involves straightforward issues that could be expressed much more simply. We can save time and money by getting straight to the point.

In this feature are half-a-dozen tips for report-writing to help you, and your members, do a proper job with half the amount of paper.

"But," I hear you say, "our councillors won't stand for that." Well, I know some of them enjoy drilling down into every last detail of environmental health's observations about the efficacy of fat extractors, or precisely what Mrs Arbuthnott at number 47 did not like about the fenestration, but most elected members are busy people who simply want a crisp and focused summary of the facts and guidance on what they need to take into account before coming to a decision. Surely they would be delighted if they only had a 20-page agenda to read in bed rather than something that resembles Tolstoy's epic War and Peace.

Here are some examples of how to "lose weight" from committee reports and feel better about yourself in the process:

- Try fronting an agenda with a covering guidelines document explaining the plan-led system, giving examples of material and non-material considerations and, perhaps, listing the policies that frequently feature in the reports. This way, some elements of the individual reports could be dealt with by referring back to this over-arching document, saving pages of repetition.

- Plain English, please. Instead of asking "whether the proposal would be compatible with policies designed to safeguard the reasonable amenities of nearby residential properties", try "whether the scheme would cause a loss of privacy for the occupiers of number 32 Balaclava Street".

- Get the determining issues up front, together with the recommendation - that concentrates the mind.

- Cut back on the history. Would knowing about a planning permission granted in 1997 for a central heating oil tank really help?

- Do not bore the pants off the committee by starting with an exhaustive list of policies that might be relevant to the decision. Stick to the ones that matter. In fact, why not abandon the list entirely and weave selected references to the key policies into your analysis of the issues as you come to them? I bet this alone would cut most reports by 20 per cent, with absolutely nothing lost. By the way, that is what inspectors do with most of their decisions.

- Do not quote representations verbatim. It is usually enough to concentrate on the gist and to group representations around issues. If Councillor Grimshaw wants more, he will have had the agenda for a week and will have plenty of time to read the stuff himself.

I appreciate that, even if you personally go along with these ideas, there has to be a common approach to report-writing to which your colleagues and the committee members need to sign up. But hopefully, there is enough here to get the debate going, should you think it is time you had one.

David Kaiserman is a chartered town planner, senior associate with consultancy Trevor Roberts Associates and was previously a non-salaried planning inspector.

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