Sunday, 14 August 2016

Fewer objectors would be better than wealthier objectors.

Where to start with the news that “homeowners in countryside villages and towns could be given cash payments to offset disruptive developments in their communities”, which was reported in the Telegraph. The concept triggers so many thoughts and feelings...

The cynically-minded would highlight how little new there is under the sun, and that if you stand still long enough the world will come back around to meet you. Who remembers, for example, the ‘Boles Bung’. Former Planning Minister Nick Boles has floated this idea before and it got as far as a share of CIL being directed to parish councils with a neighbourhood plan in place, but not as far as payments directly households. It is easy to see the attraction to Tory wonks of announcements like this every now and then (when new ministers are in post, for example) because it is a policy that simultaneously appeals to both radical reformists and core Telegraph-reading voters. It is floated, it attracts the interest of both wings of the party, but after a consultation it gets filed in the ‘too difficult’ drawer. 

The legally-minded would highlight exactly why the policy is too difficult to implement. Planning lawyer Simon Ricketts has written about how such payments would be contrary to the 2010 CIL Regulations and about the practicalities of determining for legal purposes who would be disrupted by any given development. 

The philosophically-minded would write a polemic on what this idea tells us about society and the role that we see for the planning system within it. The Telegraph refers, for example, to people ‘affected by unwanted developments near their houses not being adequately compensated. It is hardly a positive reflection of our ‘one nation’ that even the idea that some could be paid to accept others as neighbours can be floated. How can an economy ‘work for all’, as is the new Prime Minister's aspiration, when those with a house and the equity accruing within it have their income supplemented further from a pot that would otherwise benefit the community more widely simply to remove resistance to accommodating people nearby who might currently be spending a greater proportion of their monthly income on housing costs.

Were I so philosophically-minded I would write about own planning being the mediation of private interests in the public interest. The recognition that doing some things together results in a better outcome for all concerned than would be case if everybody were left to their own devices. There is a system because it was, and is, a good idea to have one, and in exchange for placing trust in that system the individual is assured that no private interest is more important than another, and is certainly not more important than the public interest. Such a policy would undermine that interpretation of a planning system though because clearly some private interests would be more important than others. 

I would like to direct my remarks, however, to another train of thought, which was the first that came to my mind. That is why and how objectors to applications have developed such a role in, and influence over, the planning system that the idea of direct compensation can be raised as a policy option at all. 

There are no third party rights of appeal in the planning system and the consultation of neighbours to proposals is largely at the discretion of the LPA. The ownership of land is often not material to a proposal to the extent that you could apply to build a granny annexe in your neighbours garden as long as you served the right notice and filled in the right ownership certificate. Applicants are not actually that important either. A planning application can be submitted by a Isle of Man holding company courtesy of a P.O. Box (c/o an agent probably) should you so desire. 

The important elements in the consideration of an application are the proposal itself and the development plan that it should be considered in accordance with unless material considerations dictate otherwise. 

The Centre for London, sponsored by Barratt London, looked at opposition from local residents to new housing development, which it noted, where successful, restricts the supply of land available for building and, even where not successful, can delay development, add costs and reduce the number of units delivered. The report identified seven reasons that local residents oppose housing developments:
  • An increase in population will place a strain on local services; 
  • A decline in trust between residents, developers and local authorities;  
  • The local identity may be threatened by outsiders;
  •  New developments may change the character or identity of the place they call home;
  •  Planning debates could be hijacked for alternative agendas;  
  • A sense of powerlessness arising from a lack of genuine engagement; and
  •  The fear of noise and safety impacts from construction
The report argues that developers and LPAs must gain an accurate understanding of the types of local opposition to housing developments before trying to resolve them because consultation, neighbourhood planning, incentives, and Community Land Trusts, whilst helpful, cannot overcome every objection.  

All of that is sound and reasonable, but, to me, all of those reasons sound pre-meditated in that they could be raised even before somebody has gone online to view a proposal and considered it's compliance or otherwise with a development plan. A good, well-consulted upon proposal that is in accordance with a good, well-consulted upon development plan might minimise objections, but what strikes me about those objections is that they reflect an attitude towards new development that would mean objection to any scheme on any site. 

I was at a meeting of land and planning managers this week and we were discussing the most common objections to planning applications for new housing. Whilst there are always concerns about highways ('Have you seen what that junction is like at 8:30 every morning?!') and ecology and other genuine planning matters, there are also the other hardy perennials like a negative impact on house prices and the loss of a view. These are not planning matters, but they are allowed to come up time and time and time again... 

Come planning committee though what takes greater precedence? The planning officer's reasoned and balanced consideration of the planning balance, or the pitchfork-wielding, placard-waving, petition-signing local residents? Perhaps that depends upon when the application is being considered in the local election cycle, which in those third/third/third authorities will be an influence in three years out of four. 

Herein is the relationship between the public, their elected representatives and the planning system represented by officers, and the balance of power between the three. For example. Why are applications on allocated sites even reported to a committee at all? Why are reserved matters submissions reported to a committee? The principle of development has been established and the committee should be considering only technical matters. When such applications do go to committee, why are the thresholds for the number of objections required so low? Why should one objection mean that an application cannot be determined under delegated powers? Even at committee, why are non-planning objections even reported at all? Here is a big one. If a Committee does vote against an officer's reasoned and balanced consideration why can that commitee not be personally liable for an appeal costs award when an inspector finds that the reasons for reasons are not justified.  

Two things flow from this. Firstly, objectors object because they can, and they know, especially in bulk (the single agitator circulating a standard letter or a petition, for example, that the objections will be taken into account. That is fine and that is their democratic right. I would never try and stop somebody from objecting, but do objections have to be given so much weight in LPA standing orders? Secondly, councillors take objections into account because their electoral chances depend upon it. That is fine too and they would no doubt argue that they are 'reflecting the views of the community'. Fundamentally that requires a tipping point to be reached whereby the loudest and most influential voices in the debate are not the objectors but the supporters. The planning system can do something in the former regard, but it can do little about the latter. 

Putting aside all cynical, legal and philosophical thoughts, it seems to me the planning system would benefit from fewer objectors, not wealthier objectors.

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