The Localism Bill has some weaknesses but many strengths. The bit that I am most passionately in favour of is the section that relates to planning. I am aware that this simple statement might put me on the other side of the fence from many readers of IH particularly the development staff of RSLs. But I welcome the changes in planning law both as a councillor and as an RSL chair.
For all the 28 years I have been a councillor I have steadfastly refused to serve on the planning committee. Put simply they spent most of their time being caught between a rock and a hard place. They knew the areas concerned; they knew what was needed and what was not needed in terms of development; and they often voted against both their own views and the wishes of the residents of a community who should be the ultimate decision makers. Why? Because they were told two things repeatedly by planning officers:
- That this was outside PPG XYZ Whatever a whole string of them.
- That the case law said that the planning inspector would grant the application anyway and the council would lose a shed load of money defending the indefensible.
In my view planning officers have been too timid and should have urged the council on to higher standards especially when they were on the side of the resident. It did not always cost money. When I took Tesco on it delayed their extension in my ward for 6 years, we had no costs for them and we ended up with a compromise that would have been acceptable if they had come to talk to us and the residents at the start of the process. It is the residents and the talking that are the major components of the changes.
Firstly residents (just 21 of them) can demand that a neighbourhood plan should be produced. They will not be the people who decide on what the plan looks like but will instigate a discussion with the whole community. There will be a full consultation process in which every resident and business can discuss the future of the area and how they would like to see it develop over (say) a decade.
That neighbourhood plan will, of course, have to fit into a bigger plan for the council’s area as a whole. There will have to be elements of give and take as a bottom up plan process from the neighbourhoods meets a top down strategy looking holistically at the council area’s needs.
Then we will be able to resist or amend much more easily developer’s proposals. Hopefully we would not need to do this at the planning application stage when developers should be aware of the neighbourhood plan and want to discuss their proposals with councillors and residents in the light of it.
The planning committee should get a much higher quality of application with much more approval built in. They will not have to be as wary of the planning inspectors as hitherto because the power base has shifted from developer and inspector to residents.
This will not happen properly without massive skills and culture changes on behalf of councillors, council staff, developers and their agents and residents. Councillors will need to learn to be facilitators for the initial consultation and mediators as they match both the bottom up/top down interface and the developers who wish to make changes. Developers and their agents will need to learn to listen to and talk with and not at the community. Planning Officers will have to learn to consult much more in a simpler way than the note on the lamp post or the weighty documents that appeals only to civic society types.
On the first day possible I will be putting in my request with 21 others for my ward to be ‘community planned’. I am hoping that plus dane will do likewise. RSLs are the key agency in some parts of our urban areas to take responsibility for the neighbourhood planning process. They are often the major land and property owner, have an excellent track record of consultation and want to be a developer over time either with marginal changes or major ones.
I know that the biggest fear of the planning world is that local means Nimby. That may be true in some areas. But in others the reason that residents fear change is that we and the developers do not properly explain why change is needed and what change will really look like. So many of the planning objections that I have dealt with were based on fear of what might be. Two or three years after a development was completed people have often found that their fears were unwarranted. If we need to put more housing in we need to explain why. We need to talk to and work with the community and assess and respond to their fears not bludgeon our way into development because we have the power of a regional strategy of a Government department to help us push through our view of the world.
First published in Inside Housing on 23rd June 2011