Planning uncovered: what councillors really think

 Considering the wide-ranging responsibilities of local councillors, issues around planning consistently provide the greatest headaches for all concerned. An in-depth understanding of councillor attitudes towards new developments is essential to ensuring the smooth progress of planning applications. In particular, attitudes are usually polarised along party lines, so understanding the make up of councils will help to identify potential angles for persuasion or inherent support.

However, developers need not be in the dark about councillors’ views, either of their reputation among them or about their proposed developments. Findings from our latest survey confirm consistent patterns of party split on contentious planning issues and what aspects of developments are considered important by councillors.

Heading Offshore – New Planning Developments

Wind farms continue to be the most contentious form of new planning development. A majority of Labour councillors say that they would support both offshore (58%) and onshore (55%) wind farms in their local area. By contrast, fewer than a third (31%) of Conservative councillors say that they would support an offshore wind farm in their area, and this drops to just one in seven (14%) who say that they would support an onshore wind farm. 

Base: all councillors (n=405)

Not only are Conservative councillors more opposed to wind farms in general, they also place a much greater emphasis on the offshore / onshore divide. There is particularly strong opposition to more visible onshore wind farms with 73% of Tory councillors saying that they would oppose such developments. But even less visible windfarms offshore are opposed by almost half (47%). However, Conservative opposition to wind farms does not translate into support for other forms of energy generation. A majority (55%) also oppose gas or coal fired power stations.

Views of housing developments also fall along party lines. While both parties have similar opinions of private housing, opinions are strongly divided on social housing. Unsurprisingly, Labour councillors are significantly more likely than Conservative councillors to support social housing developments (95% compared to 68% respectively).

In fact, Labour councillors are almost universally more positive in their area than both Conservative and Lib Dem councillors towards new developments, with the exception of private housing developments and waste management facilities, where they are only narrowly edged out by the Conservatives.

Nevertheless, there is more cross-party consensus when it comes to public services and schools. These are also the new projects most likely to be supported overall, with a minimum of 87% of councillors supporting each type of development. These are followed by leisure centres and sports facilities. Critically, all these facilities improve the council’s ability to provide public services, such as education and health. At a time when council budgets are facing not just the surgeon’s scalpel but the lumberjack’s axe, such help may well be much appreciated.

Parks and Parking – Local People and Planning Developments

There is more to planning applications than just what councillors would tend to support or oppose: their perceptions of what they believe is important to local people are crucial in determining attitudes and ultimately the direction in which they cast their vote on an application.

Base: all councillors (n=405)

 ComRes’s survey of local councillors finds that the issues perceived as most important by local residents are the impact on traffic and parking and the impact on green spaces and the environment. These top two issues have a primary impact of on residents’ quality of life. Despite straitened economic times, they are seen as the most important to local people by some margin, exceeding economic factors such as job creation.

This attitude is driven in large part by the beliefs of Tory councillors. They are more likely than their Labour counterparts to believe that residents are concerned about the impact of new developments on traffic and parking or green spaces and the environment. By contrast, Labour councillors are more likely to focus on economic factors.

Despite the oceans of ink used in Westminster to discuss the cost of living, national politics has not filtered down to the local level with regard to planning developments. Just one in three councillors (34%) say that the cost of living is important to people in their area when considering a new development. This may be because new developments are simply not seen as having a great capacity to influence the cost of living, or that the cost of living issue is perceived as being most influenced by national government, which controls the more traditional key levers of the economy.

However, as might be expected given the party’s national focus on the issue, Labour councillors (45%) are the most likely to say that this is important when considering a new development, significantly more than Conservative councillors (30%).

Why then do councillors hold these views on what is important to local people when a new development is being considered? It seems that quality of life, not economic benefit, is perceived as being the top priority. There is a focus on developments that do not affect residents’ everyday lives, rather than on what could bring the most benefit to the area. For residents, one is very real, the other almost always theoretical.

For this reason, there may be more prosaic causes at work. It may be that councillors believe that the potential outcry stirred up by problems, such as parking or the destruction of green spaces, outweighs the benefits a development could bring, such as to the local economy. Perhaps councillors accept that they are more likely to receive complaints about disruption to parking than they are to receive praise about the creation of jobs, and this colours their perceptions of what is important to their electors. For the time being at least, there could be worse strategies than making councillors’ lives a little easier.

Methodology note

ComRes interviewed 405 local councillors in England and Wales online between 17th and 30th October 2013. Data were weighted to be representative of all councillors in England and Wales by region and party. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.

For further information please contact:

Jasmine Morgan, Business Development Executive
Contact: 020 7871 8655, Jasmine.morgan@comres.co.uk

James Rentoul, Research Analyst
Contact: 020 7871 8654, James.rentoul@comres.co.uk

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