When it comes to planning, the odds have become stacked against local residents
"We cannot go on with people feeling locked out of the [planning] system," writes Marcus Fysh MP ahead of his parliamentary debate today.
Planning is an issue that a lot of MPs shy away from – we don’t have much influence over individual decisions, it’s a very technical area and it will often lead to constituents set against each other with one party heading for disappointment. I’ve been interested in the subject though since before my time as a District and then County Councillor in Somerset and I have secured a debate on the system because I want to raise some concerns. Through a mixture of looking at some examples local to my constituency and interaction with the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government Ministers in Westminster, I have reached a view that the odds have become stacked against local residents and this is due to systemic problems.
The backdrop to the current situation is that we need more homes. The problem is largely affordability: cheap and easy borrowing added to buy-to-let deals and market stability have led to homes being attractive investments pushing prices up. Government schemes have helped with shared ownership, lifetime ISAS and stamp duty changes all helping thousands of people get on the ladder.
Widespread acceptance that homes are needed has tilted the presumption in favour of granting planning applications for too many ‘bolt-on’ developments. These are added to existing cities, towns and villages very often against the wishes of the residents. They tend to rely on existing infrastructure and so put pressure on roads, schools and doctors’ surgeries, to name a few. It is my view that there is not sufficient allowance in the planning process for these concerns to be addressed. That is not to say that all applications should be rejected, far from it, but at the moment the wishes of residents are too easily ignored.
Part of the problem is inequality of resources and opportunities. As I mentioned, Planning is a technical area. Local Authorities have Planning Officers who are the experts but it is not an impartial position. Too often it is said decisions are made purely ‘on planning grounds’ as if to say that they cannot be questioned unless by another Planning expert. Councillors on Planning Committees are often not experts and so the Officer’s reports carry even more weight, even though to the expert eye they could be contested on the merits.
Once you add the strong financial incentives for developers and the resources that they have plus other unquestionable parties such as the Environmental Agency and the Planning Inspectorate, it is easy to see why residents feel they have no real say or access to the system. Judicial Review is expensive and looks only at the process rather than the outcome and the threshold for the Secretary of State to ‘call in’ a decision is high and requires strategic importance. These narrow options for community appeal are what needs to change and why I am raising this as an issue.
I am in favour of more ambitious projects and for example would like to see a new Garden Town in South Somerset, bringing as it would investment in infrastructure and potential educational and career opportunities, so I am certainly not against development and rather I believe in getting the right number of houses in the right places. However, we cannot go on with people feeling locked out of the system and that is the conversation that needs to happen before any great support for a housebuilding boom can be expected.
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