Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Who wants to be the Mayor of Leicester?

This post gives me a great excuse to indulge my inner school boy and repost the story of former Mayor of Leicester, Colin Hall, whose trousers fell down whilst giving a talk to a primary school. See below:

For those who don’t follow current goings on in the East Midland’s capital metropolis; on May 5th Leicester residents will be voting for their first elected mayor. Front runner is Labour’s, Sir Peter Soulsby, who recently resigned his position as MP for Leicester South to run for the job. I think this decision rather highlights how much power local government has to influence an areas development, particularly when compared to Members of Parliament. Contrary to popular belief, MP’s often have comparably, very little local input or influence. This is one of the reasons I’m broadly in favour of elected mayors, and believe it will give some much needed accountability to local politics and associated development.

From a planning perspective, the Conservative’s ‘Open Source Planning’ green paper, which forms the foundation of most Coalition Government planning policy, made a big deal about accountability for planning decisions and bemoaned that “...the vast majority of application decisions are made not by elected councillors, but by salaried officers.” I.e. by professional Town Planners and not local councillors. Stepping aside the issue of the legitimacy of decision maker, I would take issue with how accountable local councillors really are. I consider myself to be reasonably interested in politics, and obviously have a professional interest in planning. I’m vaguely aware of who my local councillor is (I’m thinking it’s an old chap in a blazer), but I have no idea who makes up my local planning committee, and these are the people who will actually make the big decisions on planning in my area.

My personal experience of dealing with Councillors on planning committees is hugely variable. Some committee members are knowledgeable, considered and balanced decision makers, a few of them are utterly clueless, whilst the vast majority of councillors will often vary between rational and irrational depending on the perceived, political ramifications. I have seen some absolutely shocking decisions made on several occasions and can therefore understand why the general public are often outraged and resentful about planning.

I do think it’s something of an irony that many of the important decisions which actually apply the planning system, are not made by planning professionals. As a consequence, people often blame the failings of the planning system when things that they don’t like happen, rather than looking at who made the decision, and why it was made (on the whole, I think there is very little understanding of the function of local government). More generally, it seems that local elections are mainly used as a way of displaying dissatisfaction with National Government, and that the performance of local councillors and controlling parties receives very little scrutiny.

My hope is that by appointing an elected Mayor, it gives everyone a point of account for what goes in an area, and leads to better local governance and yes, more accountability for planning.