Later this week the full list of candidates running in this year’s local elections will be declared. Here in the North West, seats are up for grabs in 25 local authorities, including two new unitary authorities in Cumbria.
The pre-election period can be problematic for those looking to bring forward development. Nobody wants their major application worth millions to be determined at the last planning committee before an election. Neither do planning officers who are mindful that months of hard work could go up in smoke should campaigners think there are votes to be won by a refusal.
But the pre-election period, traditionally known as ‘purdah’, can also be a convenient excuse to let a planning decision slide or delay the inevitable, depending upon the circumstance.
So what is purdah? And when should you be thinking about it?
Pre-election restrictions are governed by Section 2 of the Local Government Act 1986, as amended in 1988. Essentially councils should ‘not publish any material which, in whole or in part, appears to be designed to affect public support for a political party.’
Section 4 of the Act makes clear that councils need to have regard to the code of recommended practice, which covers everything from the publication of controversial reports, to the closure of public forums during the purdah period.
This year the purdah period kicked in on Monday 28 March.
Interpretation is key
But as with much guidance surrounding elections in the UK, interpretation is key. Some local authorities take a stricter view than others about what should be restricted. Although it is true to say that in my experience any interpretation does seem to get stricter with each election cycle.
The starting point for considering whether purdah restrictions apply is a ‘reasonable test’. Could a voter reasonably interpret a piece of council publicity, a policy report, a spending plan, or a policy decision as seeking to influence the outcome of an election? If the answer is yes, then restrictions should apply.
But councils are allowed to continue to discharge normal business (including the determination of planning applications) and are allowed to publish factual information to counter misleading claims made by activists.
Local authority guidance recommends ‘business as usual’ during the purdah period ‘unless there are very good reasons why this should not be the case’ with councillors encouraged to continue to go about their roles in a personal capacity. Something to bear in mind if you’re struggling to schedule that all-important meeting with an elected representative.
What does purdah mean for you?
Clearly, it is in nobody’s interest for a major investment to come unstuck at a planning committee during the purdah period. But committee schedules can mean that a decision to delay determination is paid in months not weeks.
For BECG’s clients, the impact of the purdah period will have been priced-in on planning strategies by the end of February at the latest. Decisions about whether or not to proceed to a March / April planning committee are based on the profile or ‘controversy’ of an investment, the volatility of the local political landscape, and often frank conversations with elected members.
This means that any decision to delay is planned for and any decision to press ahead is taken having considered the level of political risk attached to each project.
So it pays to plan ahead when thinking about the impact of each election cycle. Delay may be the right course of action but it should never be the default. Especially when it is a last-minute request.
If you need help understanding the local political landscape or would like to discuss this topic further, then please do not hesitate to get in contact with Kevin Whitmore.
This article first appeared on Place North West’s website. You can view it here.