Hello from the other side

I’m very new to MPC, but I’m not a stranger to the planning process. It isn’t long ago that I was on the other side of the committee table, having served as a parish secretary and parish clerk in West Essex.

Most people see their parish council – or town council – as part of the general background of their community – they run events for seniors, oversee the cemetery, organise the allotments. However, they might have more of a hazy idea of what parish councils do – until something planning-related crops up.

Planning is at the centre of a lot of parish council business. Larger parish councils have their own planning committees, which sit regularly to discuss and evaluate planning applications in the vicinity. These create debate about whether or not to recommend or oppose an application – involving the residents as well as the councillors. If people find out that there’s a proposal near their homes that may impact them, the parish council is their first port of call. After all, it’s the grass-roots level of local government and the first step on the ladder to planning committees at district level, and stakeholders like the Highways Agency at county level.

For larger developments, parish councils can connect the community and project team. They act as a channel for residents (and councillors) to air their views and explain their fears. And there’s often a lot of fear. The idea of development – of change, of incongruity - in a small town or village can cause shockwaves among the residents – and they tell the council all about it. Having said that, some things really are left-field. At one parish council, we dealt with an application for a breeding kennels for French bulldogs, based in a residential street… ironically, just before the Brexit vote. Our office phone rang like a campanologist’s vendetta for a week. The dog stud didn’t make the cut.

From a clerk’s point of view, it’s a great benefit to engage with developers. Not only can holding presentations teach councillors a great deal and educate clerks so they can better reassure the locals, but the project team can also find out what residents know, which can be very helpful. I have attended meetings where locals have given important facts about landscape, or had a very sophisticated knowledge of drainage.

Handled properly, when a development team works with a parish council who works with a community, it’s a chance to pool knowledge to help reassure people. Engagement means information, and information, especially about the benefits a development can bring, such as Section 106 and CIL funding, can go a long way. Parish councils can explain to residents how the funding is used – nets at the tennis club, repairs to the village clock, a revamp of the local playground – and create more constructive debate around this.

Yes, people will be upset, but being informative and empathetic is the way forward. It doesn’t have to become Yours Truly, Angry Mob.

This article was written by Elizabeth Thomas, Account Executive at MPC.