Communities must not be sidelined in our planning system
The sun sets behind high-rise developments under construction at Vauxhall in London, England, November 2020 | PA Images
Local people are the ones who will suffer the consequences of bad development decisions. Give councils and residents a voice at every stage
In my short time as the MP for Vauxhall, located in the heart of central London, I have already seen the huge impact that planning disputes are having on the lives of residents.
Many of my constituents have been involved in long-running battles to protect the communities they live in from unwanted and unsightly new developments.
But these disputes are not born out of Nimbyism or self-interest. They come from a genuine sense of community, local pride, and legitimate concern about the devastating impact that an ill thought-out development could have on their home area.
Unlike the planners and developers, my constituents are personally invested in their communities, and they know the people and the needs of their area better than anyone.
My years as a local councillor taught me that we must listen to our local communities. They will know whether the development meets the true needs of the area, how people like to travel around, and the things that matter most to local people.
We must listen to our local communities because they are the ones who will suffer the consequences of bad development decisions or see their quality of life diminished by developments that are poorly adapted to the area.
A zonal system threatens to take planning decisions even further away from local communities
Covid-19 has resulted in an increase in working from home and 13% of London businesses polled by the London Chamber of Commerce said working from home would become the “standard practice”. Some employees have not returned to the office since the start of the first national lockdown in March and companies are adapting to the world of remote and home working. It is now even more important for local people to feel that their neighbourhoods offer the right balance of facilities to help diffuse work-life boundaries.
If we want to build a first-class planning system with sustainable development at its core, we must govern with consent at all stages of the planning process.
But the government’s proposed move towards a zonal planning-based system threatens to take local planning decisions even further away from local communities and will be insufficient to ensure that all developments are locally appropriate.
Here in Vauxhall many of our local areas have seen massive inward investment over the years, transforming whole swathes of our city centre, making it safer and easier to move around, and generally more attractive for visitors and residents alike.
But many constituents come to me with very specific concerns about how particular developments risk damaging their homes, streets and neighbourhoods or even their overall quality of life.
And these concerns cannot be addressed by a spreadsheet formula. They can only be solved on a case-by-case basis to ensure that the development fits the requirements of the area.
Housing is a good example of where bad planning can lead to bad developments, or no development at all. For example, a recent Local Government Association analysis found that more than one million plots of land with planning permission had not yet been developed – a huge untapped potential for new homes that would be available if the government gave councils the tools to take on developers who refuse to build because it suits their needs over those of the community.
And those of us who live and work in London only need to take a walk down any street near the city centre to see the sheer number of half empty new-builds and high-rises which were bought for investment purposes and which nobody lives in.
We cannot and should not ignore the impact of bad or unwanted developments on the local people who make our towns and cities attractive places to live.
So rather than reduce the rights of local communities, the government should challenge developers to meaningfully engage with local residents throughout the planning process and give local councils the mechanisms they need to address any development failings in their own areas.
Florence Eshalomi is Labour Co-operative MP for Vauxhall