Government Plans Attack On Democracy And Green Spaces by Ian Franks

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Town planning has been the bane of many people’s lives for many years. It affects everyone from giant corporations to ordinary people, from large commercial developments to modest changes to individual properties.

Yes, I know there are special rules that can exempt a small extension, according to its size in relation to the existing property, but such minutiae are not the point here.

The legal requirement to obtain planning permission allows the planning authority, usually the relevant local council, to refuse what is judged to be an inappropriate development. And every decision is based on a number of factors that need to be considered.

Many of these are environmental, including, but are not limited to, overlooking/loss of privacy, loss of light or overshadowing, impact on listed building and Conservation Area, layout and density of building, design, appearance and materials, government policy, access for people with disabilities, conformity with the local development plan, previous planning decisions, nature conservation as well as considerations about parking, highway safety, traffic, and noise.

The authority consults neighbours and invites them to comment, but only objections based on what are termed as material considerations are taken into account. In other words, objections have to have a real basis – not simply ‘not in my back yard’.

The need for planning permission is the only protection that prevents today’s green open space, such as some agricultural land, becoming tomorrow’s major housing or commercial development.

Now councillors on planning committees do not have completely free rein. They have to decide whether or not to grant planning permission in line with national guidance, in the form of the National Planning Policy Framework, and the planning policies as set out by the local authority.

But all this is set to change if the government gets its way.

Not content with driving a coach and horses through the planning laws, with Boris Johnson at the wheel, the fools in charge in Westminster are now intent on smashing them with a mega juggernaut and trailer.

The government’s plans, as published in its white paper Planning for the Future, is nothing more than a developer’s charter, the alleged result of cosy dinners between developers and ministers.

According to the white paper, the government plans, in its own words, are as follows:

  • Local communities will be consulted from the very beginning of the planning process. By harnessing the latest technology through online maps and data, the whole system will be made more accessible
  • Valued green spaces will be protected for future generations by allowing for more building on brownfield land and all new streets to be tree lined
  • Much-needed homes will be built quicker by ensuring local housing plans are developed and agreed in 30 months – down from the current 7 years
  • Every area to have a local plan in place – currently only 50% of local areas has a plan to build more homes
  • The planning process to be overhauled and replaced with a clearer, rules based system. Currently around a third of planning cases that go to appeal are overturned at appeal
  • A new simpler national levy to replace the current system of developer contributions which often causes delay. The creation of a fast-track system for beautiful buildings and establishing local design guidance for developers to build and preserve beautiful communities
  • All new homes to be ‘zero carbon ready’, with no new homes delivered under the new system needed to be retrofitted as we achieve our commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050

OK, so there are a couple of good ideas but far more bad ones.

These include the transfer of many local planning powers from councils to Whitehall, and the centralised planning inspectorate. In a drive for efficiency, ministers are intent of having planning by checklist instead of democratically elected councillors considering local planning matters that concern their communities. So much for local democracy.

Checklists smack of computer algorithms –  a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations. And I, for one, don’t want to be governed by a computer.

In response to the white paper, LibDem’s Cllr Adele Morris, deputy chair, Environment, Economy, Housing and Transport Board of the Local Government Association, wrote:

“Liberal Democrats support the principle of community empowerment, devolving decision making to the most local level possible. The proposals in the White Paper take away many of the opportunities for communities and their locally elected representatives to have a final say on how their areas develop. We therefore fundamentally object to the underlying premise of this paper, which is to undermine democratic accountability. “Whilst we agree that there are elements of the planning system that could benefit from improvement, we disagree with the Minister’s opening statement that we have ‘an inefficient, opaque process and poor outcomes’. We specifically disagree with any suggestion that the root cause of issues with the planning system lies entirely at the hands of councils and communities.”

Cllr Morris’s letter to the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government

Doing nothing is not an option.

We need to work together to fight for local democracy and save our much-needed green spaces.

Ian Franks

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