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Put communities at the heart of planning decisions

5 min read

The planning system embroils communities in David and Goliath battles against appallingly planned development proposals.

The planning system embroils communities in David and Goliath battles against appallingly planned development proposals. These range from housing estates to grid infrastructure, roads and more. Each proposal comes with an enormous impact on the local residents and nature.

Just near me, in north Essex, three examples come to mind.

There’s Middlewick Ranges, in Colchester. Here we have some of the last remaining acid grassland in the region. Yet it is allocated for housing. To “mitigate” this harm to the grassland there will be a laughable attempt to create new grassland on an adjacent field – by spreading sulphur. This is derided by an array of experts.

Next, there’s Wethersfield Airfield. It is an oasis in the middle of over-developed southern England: 300 hectares (more than 740 acres) of blissful wildlife haven. The lists of protected birds, invertebrates and plants are as long as your arm. It is also highly likely that there is widespread contamination at the site, including nerve gas and radiation, which could cause harm to contractors and future residents. Yet the powers-that-be are pressing on with an asylum centre and plans for two mega-prisons.

And finally, we have the hundreds of miles of pylons being imposed on us by National Grid instead of a co-ordinated offshore grid which would save consumers billions of pounds.

The common theme is that communities who present evidence and alternatives are dismissed. So it is hardly surprising that communities rise up with their metaphorical pitchforks. We need to get beyond the tensions in the planning system if we are to deliver the right homes and infrastructure.

Those proposing development projects decide long in advance what they are going to build. Consultations are often a sham and therefore risk being challenged for unlawfulness, creating delay and conflict. We need to move away from the presentation of pre-determined proposals, known as ‘decide, announce, defend’. Instead, we need to move to co-creation, known as ‘engage, deliberate, decide’.

Developments of all kinds would proceed faster if issues raised in early stages are addressed and alternatives given full and fair consideration when presented.

A simple step would be to enforce referendums in local plans or when big projects are proposed. This would focus the minds of local authorities and project promoters. Referendums are already expected in neighbourhood plans and are proposed for the new ‘street vote’ orders.

It never fails to astonish me how much knowledge, expertise and enthusiasm resides in a community. That should be valued and sought out. I would like to see more support for residents engaging in local planning activities, and I believe that citizens’ assemblies would be invaluable in bringing together a diverse range of participants to discuss thorny planning issues.

When it comes to housing, it is imperative that politicians define the crisis in order to create policy which solves the actual problem. The problem is simple: everyone must have access to a safe roof over their heads that they can afford. It is, as they say, not rocket science.

Yet, remarkably, the housing crisis has not been defined. Nor do political parties show any inclination to move away from setting an arbitrary national housing target and hoping that the market will meet all needs. But who will build the homes? Who will be able to afford them? How will it help the 1.3 million [MW1] households on local authority waiting lists in England?

Next time you speak to your MP (or election candidate) perhaps consider asking them how their policies will provide a safe and affordable roof for everyone

 

With researchers at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence arguing that housebuilders are known to work to a “margins over volume” strategy, we can be sure that the market will not address the needs of all, and cries of “just build homes” let down the neediest.

Together with our fellow members of the Better Planning Coalition, we at the Community Planning Alliance have been making these points for some time, while also focusing on climate, sustainable development and nature’s recovery.

Pleasingly, the National Housing Federation has launched a new, long-term plan for housing which focuses on building new social housing, and aims to deliver “real change for the people who need it most”.

In addition, a team of academics has found a way to meet the nation’s housing need without transgressing climate and biodiversity goals. Published in the journal Ecological Economics, their solutions include “decarbonising the existing housing stock through rapid retrofitting, and policies disincentivising the overconsumption of floorspace”.

Policymakers should take a very close look at all of the above.

Next time you speak to your MP (or election candidate) perhaps consider asking them how their policies will provide a safe and affordable roof for everyone and, taking that a step further, how they will do that within environmental boundaries. Unfortunately, you are likely to hear all about the homeownership dream and nothing about real need and environmental challenges. That has to change.

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Connecting Communities

Connecting Communities is an initiative aimed at empowering and strengthening community ties across the UK. Launched in partnership with The National Lottery, it aims to promote dialogue and support Parliamentarians working to nurture a more connected society.

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