Thursday, 22 August 2013

We’re all going to be film stars!

Not to be outdone by the forthcoming second series of ‘The Planners’ on the telly (which, by the way, is going to be re-titled “Not in My Back Yard!”), Uncle Eric has decided that the cameras should be allowed into planning committee meetings and planning hearings and inquiries.

New guidance is to be issued by De-CLoG, which "will make clear the rights for members of the press and public, including local bloggers and hyper-local [?] journalists, to report, film and tweet planning appeal hearings." In a press release, De-CLoG ministers express the hope that “this will open up a previously mysterious and rarely seen side of the planning process”.

The new freedom to record and film proceedings, including the use of digital and social media can be exercised in future in appeal hearings and inquiries, provided that it does not disrupt proceedings. According to the blurb, "Inspectors will advise people present at the start of the event that the proceedings may be recorded and/or filmed, and that anyone using social media during or after the end of the proceedings should do so responsibly."

Pickles is particularly annoyed, because previous guidance he published in June, which was intended to open up planning committee meetings in the same way, has been deliberately ignored by some councils. Unfortunately, he omitted to write this into recent changes to subordinate legislation on the conduct of council meetings, and so he can do no more for the time being other than to huff and puff about it (something Uncle Eric is rather good at doing).

The press release ‘names and shames’ several of the offending councils:

• Wirral Council banned a blogger from filming its planning committee on health and safety grounds, asserting the ban was necessary as they cannot ‘police’ people filming.

• Tower Hamlets stopped a 71 year old resident and OAP campaigner filming a council meeting in June 2013. Council officers asserted that allowing filming could lead to “reputational damage to the authority”

• Keighley Town Council stopped a council meeting when a group of pensioners started to film the meeting and called in the police who escorted the 11 residents from the town hall. Officials argued allowing filming would be a “breach of Standing Orders”

• Blogger Richard Taylor, producing a guide for citizens on how to film meetings, has warned that some councils have demanded identity papers, such as a passport, before allowing filming, and warned “be prepared for the police to be called and the possibility of arrest, especially if you intend to film, photograph, tweet or take notes on a laptop” (Apparently, he was threatened with arrest when he tried to film Huntingdon District Council.)

• Bexley Council has asserted it intends to continue to prohibit audio and visual filming due to its “agreed protocol”

• Stamford Town Council meeting has reaffirmed its ban on a newspaper reporter tweeting from a council meeting, due to “concerns about 140 character snippets of information not accurately portraying a debate”

I have no more sympathy than Pickles with these weak excuses. If meetings are open to the public (as most planning committee meetings must be by law), there can be no reasonable objection to the proceedings being filmed, photographed and recorded, or reported ‘live’ on social media.

On the other hand, if you have attended as many different planning committee meetings as I have, you may well understand the reluctance of elected members to have their ‘deliberations’ broadcast to the great unwashed. The sad fact is that the standard of debate in many planning committees is absolutely dire, and the poor calibre of elected members, their profound ignorance of planning principles and procedures, and general lack of common sense is appallingly obvious. When officers in one authority claimed that allowing filming could lead to “reputational damage to the authority”, their fears may well have been justified!

As for opening up planning inquiries and hearings to the cameras, camera phones and recorders, I rather suspect that interest in recording the proceedings in this way will rapidly wane. It is rare even to see a local print journalist at an appeal hearing or inquiry, and those members of the public who bother to attend mostly drift away by lunchtime on the first day. The plain fact is that for those not directly involved in the process, it is arcane and incomprehensible, and opening it up to the cameras is not going to change that.

Major public inquiries into controversial development proposals might attract the TV cameras, but they will have the same problem as print journalists who have tried to cover these proceedings in the past. The bigger the development scheme, the longer the inquiry, and for journalists and TV crews it is likely to prove as exciting as watching paint dry.

Still, it makes a good silly season story, and Uncle Eric can feel satisfied that he has taken yet another decisive step to improve the planning system. Never mind, that we are still not building more than a tiny proportion of the new homes that are so urgently needed. Never mind that local planning authorities are starved of funds and can hardly cope with their work as a result. And never mind that all Uncle Eric’s previous brave words and stirring deeds have done virtually nothing to make any really significant change to the planning system.

UPDATE (30 August 2013): I am told that Merton Council has begun webcasting various meetings within the past few months, including its Planning Applications Committee (although I am told that after two meetings no further webcasts have been made due to "technical difficulties"). A correspondent has suggested that readers should watch the first three applications presented on 18 April.

The webcasts can be accessed on:

This is not a link, but if you copy and paste this URL into the address line on your browser, the page should open. Don’t panic when you get no sound at the beginning. The camera was switched on before the meeting began, and the sound only starts when the Chairman opens the meeting, 7½ minutes into the recording. (You can move the cursor along to get to this point without having to watch usual the pre-meeting comings and goings in total silence. Alternatively, the menu on the right of the page enables you to go straight to the start of each item. The first application is reached about 10¾ minutes ibnto the recording.)

The 18 April meeting seems fairly typical to me. One thing you’ll notice is that the proceedings might reasonably be described as ‘unhurried’. It takes over 20 minutes, including the planning officer’s introduction, and public statements, before the members of the committee start to discuss the first application around 33½ minutes into the recording.

Anyway, see what you make of it.



  1. Gosh, that description sounds remarkably familiar - and I've only been to one! (Ours was successful; it was the demented and irrelevant discussions surrounding several other applications I was thinking of)

  2. Will they also be recording the "pre meetings" that are so common, particularly among the "steering" element of the supposedly democratic process? Most of the committee members are steamrollered into submission or they just sit idly by completely oblivious, or as is more likely ignorant of the facts.

    One LPA has legal opinion which says they can't do what they are doing in imposing local occupancy restrictions on dwellings but says "we will carry on as we are until legally challenged".... stunningly arrogant and possibly guilty of "Misconduct in Public Office".

    Until complete transparency is brought into the arena of the LPA "Secret Society" we will continue to have these debates and be personally marked out for "special treatment" by said secret society.

  3. Martin, I feel that your blog has hit the nail on head: 'The sad fact is that the standard of debate in many planning committees is absolutely dire, and the poor calibre of elected members, their profound ignorance of planning principles and procedures, and general lack of common sense is appallingly obvious.' IF the Government was truly serious about improving the planning system then it would address one of the fundamental flaws in the whole process - that major planning decisions which affect hundreds if not thousands of lives are made by a bunch of untrained and inexperienced lay people, some of whom dose off during the debate, and many others don't know what on earth is going on. Leave planning to the professionals... then we might see some fast, efficient handling of applications with the right outcome. The planning obsession with democracy is one of the reasons why it doesn't work. I'm not saying get rid of planning committees altogether(although there is a thought). Instead, streamline them, reduce membership to five or six members who have a genuine interest and grasp of the issues, and make the members non political. It happens in other jurisdictions and works a darn sight better. Remove the politics from planning - both at a local and national level.

  4. Quote:

    “The new and easy to use web pages of advice set out guidance on a range of issues including:

    a new affordability test for determining how many homes should be built
    opening up planning appeal hearings to be filmed
    discouraging councils from introducing a new parking tax on people’s driveways and parking spaces
    encourage more town centre parking spaces and end aggressive ‘anti-car’ traffic calming measures like speed bumps
    housing for older people - councils should build more bungalows and plan positively for an ageing population
    new neighbourhood planning guidance to help more communities start their own plans
    new local green space guidance to help councils and local communities to plan for open space and protect local green spaces which are special to them
    The new National Planning Practice Guidance online resource is being opened initially in a test mode for 6 weeks for public comment with a final go-live planned for the autumn.”


    NB The link to the new guidance doesn’t actually work yet!!!!!

  5. My thanks to Richard W for alerting us to the opening of this new website. This is the promised successor to all the government circulars we have so learnt to love these many years, or it will be when all the promised content is uploaded. It will no doubt merit a blog post of its own as soon as it is fully operational. What worries me, and no doubt other planning professionals, is what will happen when existing circulars are withdrawn. I very much fear the sort of policy vacuum that was caused by the publication of the NPPF in place of the suite of detailed (and extremely useful, even essential) Planning Policy Statements and Planning Policy Guidance notes last year.

  6. I think you hit the nail on the head with your description of too many planning committee meetings. I have posted to the LinkedIn planning group on this thread too (and hence found your link to your own blog).
    The comments of some people suggest that too many commentators are wearing rose-coloured spectacles when assessing our democratic planning system. As you say I suspect the entertainment value will soon disappear but if wider public viewing improves the input of all participants then that would be a great thing.
    It is too easy for uninformed people to blame (wrongly) "money grabbing developers" colluding with "incompetent or corrupt officers" to pass development schemes in the face of members voting to please their constituents. The sad truth is a far cry and many schemes get lost in the cost of dealing with poor officer input and ludicrous members opinions, frequently in both cases not based upon any lawful and sound planning principle. If this gets exposed by public airing then the planning system will benefit.
    As always I don't attack the many good officers and authorities, but I do object professionally to members and officers falling below acceptable standards and/or pandering to authority or local politics.

  7. On the filming of Committees, Mole Valley District Council have been doing it for years. The quality isn't always perfect, but it is good and clear enough to be an acceptable substitute if you can't attend in person. It is kept online for some months afterwards.

    I have used the recordings in preparing appeal statements and it is incredibly helpful.

    Having congratulated Merton, I thought it was only fair to congratulate a Council that has been doing it for much longer.