On Being a Councillor

I seem to have had quite a few comments and discussions recently about politicians and planners, and several people have asked me why I became a politician, what it was like on planning committee and what I think of politicians now. So I thought I’d have a go at writing a blog about it!

I was a Bristol City Councillor between 1994 and 2002, representing first Southville Ward and then Knowle Ward, at a time when Labour controlled the council (with a pretty big majority when I first got elected). It was also a time of constant change, as after my first year we transitioned to being a Unitary Council, with the abolition of Avon County Council, operating with the same tight city boundaries as before, but taking on massive new functions including Education and Social Services, with massive new budgets. We also took a decision to remove the post of Chief Executive and restructured the council on at least 3 occasions during my 8 years as a councillor. Just to add to all that, the government also inflicted upon us the Cabinet/Scrutiny system, moving away from a traditional committee system that had operated in local government for many years, to one which no one was familiar with and which many resisted. So a lot was packed into my 8 years, a lot of change and even more learning.

When I started out as a councillor you didn’t get paid – well saying that we got a £22 allowance for every formal meeting of the council that we attended, the same amount was paid whether the meeting last 30 minutes or 7 hours, and we had to claim via ‘time sheets’ in arrears, so many councillors were either unemployed, retired or semi-retired, with fewer in full time employment. I was lucky enough to have a relatively sympathetic employer throughout my time on the council, enabling me to attend meetings during the day (as most of them were then). My typical week as a councillor would involve a whole load of formal and informal council meetings, all during the day, with Party meetings in the evenings. Weekends and evenings were also spent meeting local residents, doing ‘casework’, delivering leaflets, attending local events or Party meetings and reading through endless committee reports ready for council meetings. So doing a full time job and being a councillor was a challenge and certainly hindered your chances of progression at work. Most of my focus as a councillor was on progressing the green agenda and on planning issues, chairing various committees with this remit. I was lucky enough during my time as a councillor to not only sit on planning committees but also to chair Central Area Planning and South & East Area Planning Committees, a role I thoroughly enjoyed.

Being a member of a planning committee is different to just about anything else on the council – it is a quasi-judicial function so basically means voting on party lines, enforced by Party Whips is not allowed in relation to decisions about planning applications or enforcement. When I first started out on planning I have to say that there was an element of party politics that came into those decisions, this was before Nolan training was introduced, and before the ‘rules’ tightened up on this matter as a result of the Nolan Committee report on Standards in Public Life (1995). Nolan training was invaluable, particularly in terms of making it very clear to all those on planning committees precisely what they could and couldn’t take into account when considering planning applications. It took some time before understanding was fully translated into practice, but it did seriously help reduce the party politics that went on around planning decisions.

I truly enjoyed planning committees, we had real debate and discussion about some big and small issues, we learnt the art of compromise and we learnt to (mostly) get on with each other and come to decisions based on the facts before us rather than previously decided political positions. As chair of planning committees I was always keen to see if we could reach agreement rather than conflict and argument, involving all committee members whatever their political party – it was a challenge on occasions but fascinating as a process. Now I should confess at this point that I did a town planning degree at UWE and I am a trained, professional planner and member of the Royal Town Planning Institute, so I started with a pretty good knowledge of the planning system and a real interest in planning for many years, which undoubtedly helped. The downside of planning committee was the pressure, for every application no matter how big or small, there were different views and opposing sides, those who supported and those who objected. Balancing those views, taking into account all the rules and regulations, all the evidence and coming to an objective decision was tough, and often involved large numbers of statements from members of the public many of whom were incredibly emotional about the issue as it affected them. Planning is a very emotive subject, but as a committee member we had to cut through all of that and within the rules of the system come to a decision that could be defended at appeal if necessary.

There were many big planning decisions to be made when I was a councillor and none bigger than the proposals for the redevelopment of the Bristol Harbourside. That was a truly difficult time to be on planning committee, my postbag/emails/phone messages must have increased 100 fold during that period, as did the invites to meet with objectors and supporters alike. The pressure was on from the start, with officers pushing extremely hard for us to approve the first application, which would in my opinion of been a disaster. I can remember being lobbied hard by senior planning officers and business people once they realised I had concerns about the application, I was constantly reminded that anything had to be better than a derelict site, and if we didn’t approve it the whole deal would fall apart, and then where would we be? Anyway, for anyone who knows Bristol and was around at the time of those decisions, you’ll know we refused permission, quite rightly in my view -if you think what we have now is bad you should have seen the original scheme! The refusal didn’t lead to the developers walking away, instead they appointed a new master planner and engaged in a better process of consultation. As a result a new scheme was brought forward that at least seemed to make some reference to the site, its waterside location and the fact that it was in Bristol. This was the scheme that in concept and outline was approved, sadly what has been implemented now seems to have moved away from much of what I liked about that scheme – that’s what happens when detailed applications are submitted and developers try to renegotiate on detail, someone has allowed them to remove key elements that we fought so hard to get included! So you end up with something that still doesn’t quite hit the mark, and that’s down to the system, to where the power in that system really lies – with the developers.

As a councillor I often felt powerless to change things and unable to take the right decisions because I was hampered by a system that favours the private developer and is centrally controlled to the point where local autonomy and ability to makes things happen in the right way is seriously difficult sometimes. Equally, I think we were often too cautious, too afraid to take those difficult decisions, too ready to accept the constraints and veiled threats of the development industry and not brave enough to show real leadership when it was needed. The system doesn’t help but then nor do the politicians sometimes!

 

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5 thoughts on “On Being a Councillor

  1. What reaction would you have had if five of your committee had refused to take part in a controversial planning application, claiming they had been intimidated? Surely an inquiry was called for. Just replacing them, and carrying on as normal, leaves yourself open to all sorts of rumour and accusation. To me it brings the whole independence of planning committees into disrepute.

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    • Not sure, probably would have withdrawn the item and asked for issue to be investigated. We rarely if ever had that issue on that kind of scale, sometimes a local ward councillor would ask not to be present if they had been lobbied by local residents, but otherwise seemed to work ok.

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  2. Pingback: On the blog – what’s popular? | TessaCoombes

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