Now you're a councillor

Now you're a councillor

A site for women councillors in Victorian local government

Don’t get bombarded by immediate urgency…

Gilda Di Vincenzo has been in the world of land use planning for almost 20 years.  While she has worked in private enterprise as a consultant and even been out of planning at one time for a stint in IT, she still gets most excited about the world of local government planning.  She is currently (2013) President of the Women’s Planning Network (WPN), a dynamic network of planners and others interested in planning.

“What makes me passionate about local government planning is it’s the most direct impact you can have as a planner.  It’s close to decision makers, and you can have a more direct influence through your working relationship with them.  Also results can be quite quick – with development approvals for example you can see the tangible results of what you’ve been working for quite soon.  Plus you get a chance to converse with residents and many others interested in planning.

Council decision-makers have to come to grips with both the strategic and statutory functions of local government planning, and there is quite a contrast between them.  Statutory planning (i.e. planning permits) has an urgency about it; it’s about the now and the details, and of course people tend to get quite upset when things aren’t going as they hope.  Strategic planning is really about the long-term and the bigger picture for the municipality as it evolves, which is what I focus on now.

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.

For example, in considering a planning permit application, if there’s a policy gap it can be very difficult to make a decision.  So, good strategic planning can make your life easier down the track . If you can have conversations with business, residents, developers and community groups without an impending decision hanging over you, people see that they can create change and find common ground. Plus, it’s a chance to educate people about state government powers and the limits of local government powers.

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.

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.

As the Chair of the Women’s Planning Network I believe having women involved in planning is critical.  Women are often key decision-makers and information conduits in their households and broader community.  It is therefore very important to ensure planning consultations are accessible to women, especially across different socio-economic and cultural realms.

You don’t have to be a planner to join WPN.  If you are interested, it is a good resource for networking with people who work in the industry.”