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Community spirit

Our labyrinthine planning system must be overhauled, says Ed Howker

11 March 2010

12:00 AM

11 March 2010

12:00 AM

If you really want to know how obtuse, how jaded, how downright bizarre Britain’s planning system is, you need only consult the findings of Lord Walker, the Supreme Court Judge who last week answered the question: should you show deference to local golfers?

An odd question for sure, but one upon which rested the £55 million development of 300 homes on the Teeside coastline in a place called Coatham Common. The five residents who brought the case fought a six-year battle to preserve their local green space which, by the time it reached Lord Walker, had spent longer in court than Perry Mason. His ruling stated that simply because local strollers had showed civility towards golfers on the common did not mean they had lost the right to use the land as a public amenity. And the residents, dismissed as ‘armchair anarchists’ and ‘nimbys (“not in my backyarders”)’ by some councillors, were proved right in law.

To fight a planning application, especially for six years, is a very hard slog. There is no financial reward, a slim chance of success and you quickly garner the enmity of your local authority. More than once, residents fighting the Coatham development, for example, were concerned that they were the subject of surveillance by their council, but when they asked under the Data Protection Act for what information was held by the borough on them, the request was declined.

The Coatham case, which pitted a small community against the combined weight of wealthy developers and unaccountable town planners, was unremarkable. Every year there are hundreds like it. Despite the Robin-Hood-style mythologising however, planning policy is still seen as a political sleeping draught, guaranteed to induce drowsiness in all but the most hardened wonk. It’s easy to understand why – Britain’s planning system is splendidly complicated. The documents prepared for all but the most pedestrian planning applications often run to hundreds, if not thousands, of pages. And as soon as you realise that these applications must also comply with thousands of pages of national planning policy guidance, reissued by the Department for Communities and Local Government seemingly every ten minutes, ‘Regional Spatial Strategies’ and ‘Local Development Frameworks’, you understand that the system will torment anyone attempting to understand what is happening in their community. ‘Want to know why the fifty acres of greenfield land opposite your home is scheduled for 950 new three-bed houses? See you 1,000 pages later.’

And, if you object to the plans and express your concerns to your local councillor, don’t expect a word of public support. If a councillor campaigns on a planning issue he or she shows ‘predetermination’ and is therefore ineligible to vote on the application under local government law. This is, of course, absurd, and the Conservatives’ decision to scrap the rule will be a powerful move towards reinvigorating local democracy. But the cold truth is that if we want people to care for their communities, councils must not only grudgingly acknowledge that they have a role to play in planning decisions, but they should embrace it. This is what the Conservative party’s proposals for open source planning – in which neighbourhoods play a fundamental role in deciding what gets built where – will do.

Inevitably, the Tory plans have already been described as a ‘nimbys charter’ by Britain’s biggest builders. But if ‘nimbys’ are the people who are prepared to stand up and fight for their communities against almost impossible odds, as in the case of the Coatham Five, perhaps we need a new description of ‘nimbys’. Let’s call them ‘good citizens’.

Ed Howker is an associate editor of The Spectator.

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