Our training session for new councillors talked them through a Report to Committee. It’s a very familiar document to planning professionals, but seeing it through their eyes, I was reminded how much that one document achieves. In effect, it’s a summary of all the relevant issues for deciding the planning application, together with commentary where appropriate.
If there is a legal challenge to the decision reached, the Report will often be a key element, especially since objectors are rarely given the chance to address the Committee, and they often feel that the summary style of reporting means that their objections have not been adequately represented.
The key role of the Report was highlighted by the judge in Campbell v City of Edinburgh Council 1999 SLT 1009:
In these circumstances it is evident that, in the documentation provided to the committee, in particular in these two consultants’ reports, conflicting views of the law and its application to the circumstances of this case were offered. In that situation, in my opinion, it was of particular importance that the director of planning should have offered to the subcommittee advice as to what was the correct view of the law and the approach to be taken to its application to the case before them. Having carefully considered the terms of his report, the conclusion which I have reached is that he failed so to do.
Planning officers will be relieved that the judge did caution against taking too strict an approach to interpreting the Report to Committee:
During the course of the argument before me there was much analysis and discussion of the report by the Director of Planning dated 20 August 1997. At times during the course of the argument I got the impression that it was indeed being treated by counsel as they would have analysed a conveyancing document. There was close analysis of certain passages of the wording chosen in the report. I am not convinced that that is the proper approach to a document such as this in the context of this case. It appears to me that I ought to read the document fairly and as a whole, with a view to discovering whether it provided sufficient and correct advice in relation to the law which had to be applied to the sub-committee considering the application. In that connection I think it right to bear in mind that the sub-committee was composed of elected members of the respondents, who may reasonably be presumed to have some knowledge of planning principles.
Sufficient and correct advice on the law must be given, but the Report is to be read fairly and as a whole.
Preparing for the training also reminded me that there is a Report on Handling, which is a requirement introduced by the 2009 reforms. That means a report is prepared on every planning application, even if it is decided by an officer under delegated powers rather than by the planning committee. The Report on Handling has to be published on the Planning Register. The Scottish Government Circular 3/2012 advises that the contents should be similar to reports prepared for planning committees.