Political party’s powers over composition of planning committees

Is the composition of a planning committee a political decision or one for the council?

In the High Court case of Carnegie (On Behalf of the Oaks Action Group), R (On the Application Of) v Ealing [2014] Rule 24 of the local planning authority’s Council and Committee Procedure Rules said:

Where any member of a committee, was unable to attend a meeting for a reasonable reason, a representative of that member’s political group could give notice to the proper officer to authorise the proper officer to change the standing appointments of the committee to substitute an alternative member for the duration of that meeting.

Councillor Gulaid was substituted by Councillor Varma who, in turn, was substituted by Councillor Kang. Councillor Kang voted in favour of the proposed development.

Councillor Gulaid was able to attend the meeting of the planning committee but was told not to by the whip of his political party.

The claimant, challenging the planning permission for a shopping centre redevelopment, contended that:

– Councillor Gulaid was substituted to obtain a vote in favour of the development proposed; and,

– When, as here, a substitution is made in conflict with a council’s own rules the result was an improperly constituted committee. So, the planning permission for the development must be quashed.

Councillor Gulaid said that he had been told that he should not sit on the committee as that would give rise to a risk of a challenge to its decision on the basis of “predetermination” because he had been making statements indicating a commitment to supporting the objectors. The claimant said Councillor Gulaid had made no such statements and so had been improperly removed.

However the court said committee membership was determined by the council to reflect the political balance of the elected members.

Where elected members could not physically attend committee meetings their political party would then substitute another of its party to make sure that the political balance of the committee was retained.

Here, all three councillors were duly appointed Labour Party members of the planning committee and it had been a political decision as to who attended the meeting to vote on the planning application.

Whether a reason for any member being unable to attend a committee meeting was “reasonable” within the above rule was a matter to be determined by the political party.

An inability to attend may extend beyond a physical inability to attend to cases where there were concerns that the member, due to attend, did not have an open mind on the decision needing to be taken.

The relevant political party may be reasonable to be concerned – whether or not the relevant councillor actually had an open mind.

Either way that decision making process was part of the democratically elected political process and could not be reviewed by the courts.

The court’s decision is a useful reminder of the political basis of planning decisions and how those politics interface with the law.

The court was clearly right to think inability to attend extended beyond mere physical inability to attend to include cases of predetermination.

The case for predetermination having occurred here was open to question but the court’s decision as to the political party’s powers to regulate composition on that ground appear to accept that a political party is the final arbiter if one of its councillors be substituted on that ground.

This blog has been posted out of general interest. It does not remove the need to get bespoke legal advice in individual cases.