Now you're a councillor

Now you're a councillor

A site for women councillors in Victorian local government

Balancing the emotions is always difficult …

Debbie Tyson has worked in the Statutory Planning field for almost 15 years, starting out as a Planning Support Officer, rising up to her current position of Manager of Development and Compliance Services. She has been employed in four municipalities, experiencing a diversity of land use planning situations. Debbie also operated in the private sector as a Planning consultant, however she now focuses solely on her passion, working within the local government field.

What makes me passionate about local government is the closeness we have with the community; we are the only government body that has direct contact with our residents, they are able to speak to an officer, seek clarity, raise concerns, request assistance, all face to face.

Engaging with the community is an important part of the planning process.

As a Planner you have an opportunity to support development, facilitate positive outcomes, drive growth, all while considering the impact on the environment, community and the objectives of the Council.  Councillors have to come to grips with both the strategic and statutory functions of local government planning, and there is quite a contrast between them.

Strategic planning is about the long-term and the bigger picture for the municipality as it evolves. It sets strategies and the vision of Council, engages the community to set plans and policies to guide development and outcome for their settlements and places.  Statutory planning (i.e. planning permits) has an urgency about it; it’s about assessing application in the now, against the strategic direction of the Council, the State and the Planning Scheme.

Community expectations and the process

For councillors, it can be quite a challenge to balance these two sides of planning. It’s easy to get bombarded by the immediate urgency of planning permit decisions so a good understanding of how strategic and statutory planning fit together can really help councillors in their role.

Many times the requirements of the decision guidelines are not in line with community expectations. This can be a difficult time as people tend to get quite passionate or upset when things aren’t going as they hope.  For councillors, it can be quite a challenge to balance decision making and the emotions of residents. Councillors should have a clear understanding of what they must consider when deciding on a proposal, balancing the requirements of the scheme and community expectation.

For example, in considering a planning permit application, if there’s a policy that a Councillor does not agree with or they believe there is a gap/absence of policy, this should be addressed through the strategic planning process. Good strategic planning can make a Councillors life easier down the track. A decision on a planning permit application can only be given taking into account the current guidelines, policy’s and planning scheme requirements.

All new councillors come into the job with different interests. Some have particular issues and often they have campaigned on planning issues, but they then realise there’s a lot more to it. New councillors will usually go through induction and orientation to learn about all the functions of council, but with planning these aren’t things they can learn quickly. In fact, there’s no easy answer so don’t expect to be on top of it straight away. After your inductions, refresh yourself about planning when you need to. Always be ready to ask “what’s the legal framework we’re working in now?” Go back and ask again if you need to. Planning bamboozles people but everyone builds capacity over time.

Look for more info

It’s good to be familiar early on with your Municipal Strategic Statement (MSS) but be aware that it might not be as current or as comprehensive as it needs to be.

Also the State government website can be a good resource for general information on the planning process and current issues in the industry.

As a new councillor you can say to residents that you are coming to grips with the complications of planning issues and you may not be able to answer their queries at first. They will appreciate the honesty as long as you follow through, look into it, and get back to them.
As a planner, the main messages to new councillors are:
• Sometimes you have to make unpopular decisions
• It’s about the net benefit and the long-term vision
• You can’t please everyone all the time, being a councillor is a decision-making role and sometimes you have to be brave
• It doesn’t stop at the borders of the municipality – sometimes councillors need to work across borders. This can add strength for lobbying on shared issues.
• Use your contacts in the Planning department to help you with your questions and concerns, we are here to help

When I first started in local government, I was led by a male CEO, all male executive and a full complement of male Councillors. I have seen a tremendous change over time with more women standing for leadership positions and I am continually amazed at the positive impact women are having in Local Government. I believe our involvement is crucial, offering diversity and equity in decision making and leadership.