Congratulations are due to light consultant Kaivin Wong and resident objector Agapi Fylaktou, who made planning history this week as the first non-council speaker at a Westminster City Council planning committee.
Now that Westminster City Council has allowed civilians to speak at meetings, we thought it might be worthwhile to look at how to make your three minutes in the spotlight more effective.
The contributions come from colleagues who sit on planning committees, have sat on planning committees and, frankly, have watched rather too many planning committees. All the stories are real, but names have been withheld to protect the innocent and guilty.
Accentuate the positive. Usually, the applicant’s team goes after the objectors have done their stuff. So, committee members have listened to all the problems neighbours are convinced your application will bring upon them – eternal darkness, inability to ever get on a bus, flush the toilet, get decent broadband, you know. It’s tempting to deal with them. Frankly, don’t. If they claim something so absolutely outrageous, then deal with it quickly at the start of your time. Then tell them why the application is good (more on that in a bit). If you deal with their objections in a methodical way, all you are really doing is reminding councillors that the objections exist. So, stay positive.
What are the good things, again? We’ve seen this happen too many times. Applicants – not our clients, promise – tell Hounslow members how many cycle spaces there’ll be, or Hillingdon all about the great affordable housing. Find out what they care about, and tell them about that. For most of London that’s affordable housing, we grant you, but there are plenty of different interests in different boroughs. You just need to know them.
Dress the part. You may be a multi-millionaire property developer. If so, we congratulate you. You have taken risks, made good decisions, and reaped the rewards. All we ask is that you think carefully before dressing like a multi-millionaire property developer. It’s a few years now since we asked a Tower Hamlets councillor why he had led a charge (successfully) to refuse a decent scheme: “I didn’t like them, standing there in their thousand-pound suits”. Dress like members of the committee do. At some, it’s proper smart stuff. At some, they look they’ve come in from a spot of plastering. It’s good to fit in.
Speak up! We’ve seen this all to often. The committee have gone down a bizarre decision-making cul-de-sac or officers have got something wrong or members want a simple change that you are very happy to make. After nervous glances, someone on the team stands up and nervously says “Chair, can I just…er, I just wanted to clar…” only to be stopped by a Chair with a stern reminder that their three minutes has come and gone and their job is now to listen. Push the fear to one side, stand up, and say what you need to say, in a nice clear voice. “It’s 40% affordable, not 14!”. Alright, you might get slapped down but neither the Town and Country Planning Act or the Localism Act imposes a custodial sentence for speaking out of turn at a planning committee. We’ve saved deferrals and refusals by gently but firmly pushing client team members in the back, and we’re not frightened to do it again.
Practice! We’ll help, obviously. Perhaps you have undergone one of our ‘Angry Councillor’ sessions where one of our colleagues who you have never met before will question you rather heavily. Last year, someone rang us back to say that after the session they hadn’t slept all night for worrying about how he was going to reply to any questions asked by the forthcoming planning committee. After tea, sympathy and a bit more practice he walked out with a resolution to grant.
Stay calm. You are an experienced consultant. Doesn’t really matter in which field. Sunlight and daylight, maybe. Highways, possibly. A planner with years of experience. Sooner or later, a councillor with about two hours of training in planning (including the sandwich break) is going to tell you that you don’t know what you are talking about based on their graduation from the University of Life. Ignore the temptation to do what we saw happen in Camden once. After a clear explanation on why proposed basement works wouldn’t cause most of the borough to collapse was responded to with a “well, that’s your opinion”, he, well, did his nut and gave them a two minute breakdown of his thirty years in civil engineering. Frankly, most members on the committee will be a bit embarrassed by their colleagues’ rudeness – so focus on them. And count to ten.
Look the right way. Simple one this. The officers may be familiar to you by now. The members, no. But the members are the ones that need the eye contact.
And don’t forget to smile – you may feel frustrated with these councillors, but don’t forget they are only human.
Of course, there’s more – careful rehearsal, turn up at the right venue (we’ve seen that fail to happen) and if there’s something you think we’ve forgotten let us know and we’ll put your comments in. It goes without saying that the best way to ensure happiness is to talk to us. We’ll support you all the way and we’ll buy the first round of drinks afterwards. See you at committee!