PLANNING & COUNCILLOR ROLES
Most statutory planning decisions are made by council officers (under delegation), but a certain proportion go to the council for a decision. These can often be large applications or applications which have received objections. Councillors can be involved at various stages of a planning application process and can play different roles at different times.
Councillors, sitting as council (or a council planning committee with delegated powers), are members of the Responsible Authority charged with making decisions in individual applications. These decisions are made according to the planning scheme and other relevant local policies.
While there’s scope for interpretation, the decisions are administrative (in judicial terminology) because they are based on a legislative framework. Councillors’ individual opinions about a proposed development are only relevant in that they may impact on their interpretation of the legislation. Councillors must base their decisions on the legislative framework. This is also the basis for review of a council decision by the Victorian Civil Administration Tribunal (VCAT).
Members of the community may lobby councillors about individual planning applications. These community members often expect their elected representative to act according to their wishes at all stages of the application process.
Councillors may be in a position to ensure that the decision makers are aware of their constituents’ views. However, their statutory obligations as members of the Responsible Authority, sometimes mean that they cannot act on these views.
Community members may not understand that councillors are not always able to vote in favour of the constituents’ position. They also may not understand that when a decision is inconsistent with the local planning requirements, it can be overturned by VCAT if the applicant appeals. Both of these situations can have negative political consequences for the councillor.
Councillors may become involved in the planning consultation process prior to the council making a decision on an application. The consultation process usually looks for common ground between the applicant and objectors. Ideally the process will result in a mutually acceptable proposal which can then go to council for approval and, if not, at least a narrowing of the points of difference.
In these circumstances, councillors (who often chair as well as participate in consultation meetings) are playing a mediating role, which is quite different to the roles of representative and decision maker.
ROLE CLARITY IS IMPORTANT
It is therefore important that councillors understand what role they are playing when they participate in different stages of the planning process. While they’re only required to participate in the decision-making stage, if they do become involved in other stages of the process, they must be very clear about the role they are playing.
Their representative role means that there will be considerable pressure on them to engage with their constituents over applications which have generated local interest. Depending on the protocols that have been established between fellow councillors and the council administration, they are able to choose whether they attend, observe, participate in or chair consultation meetings. However they also need to be aware of the changing roles and how this might appear to their constituents.
Councillors should communicate with their constituents and other stakeholders about the requirements of these different roles. A useful approach for councillors can be to:
- explain what their role will be in the early stages of the process
- listen to the views of constituents
- consider the views of the applicant and objectors
- be mindful of those who, for whatever reason, have chosen not to make a representation on the planning application.
As the application proceeds to a decision, councillors move from what is essentially a listening and possibly mediating role, to focussing on the legislation and the rules that determine what can be legitimately considered in determining the application.
When participants and stakeholders understand how and why a councillor’s role can change at different stages, the decision-making processes are more transparent and accountable.