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Have your say: Does the Localism Act give people more power in the planning process?

PUBLISHED: 11:58 30 August 2012

People power montage

People power montage

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The Localism Act promised to give people more power over development in their communities. But will people embrace the measures - or are they already too disillusioned with the planning process? BEN WOODS investigates.

Planning expert’s view

Q&A interview about people power, planning law and the Localism Act with Christopher Balch, Professor of Planning at the University of Plymouth.

• Does planning law gives the public enough power?

The planning system when brought in 1947 introduced control over the development and use of private land ‘in the public interest’. The power to take planning decisions rests with the local planning authority who are a democratically elected body. However in taking their decisions they can only take into account planning considerations. These have been defined and tested through a series of legal cases over the past 70 years. If a lot of people object to a planning application decision makers can only take into account their legitimate planning concerns.

Just because a lot of people are opposed to a controversial scheme it doesn’t mean that you have to take their views into account – which of course is why many people feel frustrated that they are not being listened to.

• Do you feel that the planning process favours applicants over local people?

The new National Planning Policy Framework carries with it a presumption in favour of sustainable development. This has probably tilted the balance in favour of development. However at the same time Localism is intended to devolve more power and responsibility to communities. The planning system in the UK always has been a discretionary system which is subject to political decision making. If you spoke to a developer they would probably say that local people have too much influence.

• Do you feel wealthy planning applicants are sometimes guilty of threatening a costly appeal to get applications through?

There is asymmetry in resources between applicants and local authorities which is undoubtedly having an influence in decision making. The cost of planning appeals runs into £10,000s which local councils don’t have at the moment. They therefore run scared of going out on a limb and rejecting an application fearful that they could also have costs awarded against them. However in my experience local judgements about controversial planning applications are often right. What we have seen is the planning system leading to the creation of oligopolies of retailers (the big four supermarket chains) housebuilders (where a handful of major builders produce around half of all new homes) and increasingly chains like Costa. This is a fundamental failure of the planning system. It should promote consumer choice. However it is only those with deep pockets who can play the game meaning that as consumers we have less and less choice.

The Localism Act will put power in the hands of the people and provide them with greater control over the future development of their towns and villages.

That was the vision promised by the government when the bill was given Royal Assent in November as efforts were made to make the planning process more democratic.

But have these measures done enough to inspire people across the region to engage with their communities – and will it give them the power they desire?

It is hoped local people and parish councils will embrace neighbourhood development plans – introduced as part of the Localism Act – which is a legally binding document that allows communities to establish a general planning policy for the development of land.

But while the idea has been welcomed by some campaigners and an environmental pressure group, there are still concerns that the cost and timescale of creating a plan would continue to alienate people from the planning process.

According to one professor of planning, people feel they have no control over their community because they are often told by planning officers that public opposition – regardless of its size – is not a legitimate planning reason to stop a proposal going ahead.

Norfolk County Council leaders have been accused of riding roughshod over more than 65,000 people in March last year by agreeing to award the contract for a controversial incinerator at King’s Lynn.

Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) believes a limited third party right of appeal would instil faith back into communities amid claims that it would provide greater powers for local people to appeal decisions, and help curb the “bullying tactics” of wealthy developers.

At present, areas of Norfolk and Waveney have become hardened battle grounds for local campaign groups trying to stop development in their communities.

Campaigners in Shipdham near Dereham have been locked in a 10-year battle over the construction of two 100-metre high wind turbines, with the saga taking a new twist at the beginning of the month when Breckland council refused planning permission.

In Little Dunham near Swaffham, people have vociferously opposed Warwick Energy’s efforts to place a substation in the village. Ministers have now ordered a second public inquiry into plans after the High Court quashed their decision to block it.

However, the latest battle to reach a dramatic climax was seen in Southwold where Waveney District Council’s planning team were met with anger when they approved a re-submitted planning application that allowed a Costa Coffee café to open in the town.

People in Southwold mounted a strong fight against the national chain claiming the introduction of the cafe would provide too much provision for hot drinks and threaten the future of independent businesses.

But despite raising more than 600 objections, campaigners were told by planning officers that there was no planning reason to stop Costa Coffee opening at 70 High Street - even though councillors had turned down the same application weeks earlier.

One national newspaper questioned whether Southwold’s opposition to the national chain was an example of a “snobbishness” that resisted change.

But John Perkins, secretary of the Southwold and Reydon Society, said people should not be reluctant to protect their communities in fear of being called a ‘nimby’.

The campaigner, who fought to protect Southwold’s character from national chains (including Costa Coffee), said a neighbourhood development plan could have given them the power they needed to stop Costa Coffee’s application.

“We would have stood a much better chance of fighting Costa if we had a neighbourhood development plan,” he said. “But the only draw back is that it will take long negotiations, and a lot of time, effort and money to get one because you would have to consult with a lawyer and planning experts.

“There is also, of course, national legislation that would override that.”

He added; “The situation with the economy at the moment means that we are saying yes to developers, on occasions when we should be saying no. I believe you have got more pressure on local communities at the moment then you have ever had.”

Meanwhile, Simon Cairns, the director of the Suffolk Preservation Society, has welcomed the idea of bringing new powers to local communities, but said this can only happen if communities come together to engage in the planning process.

“Perhaps the fundamental reason why communities feel disengaged is because they feel that planning decisions can be made that do not reflect their aspirations,” he said.

“The Localism agenda raised hopes that decisions would be made to reflect community aspirations. However, planners have a statutory duty to determine applications in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.

“In theory, the consultation process leading to adoption of local plans should mean that their policies are supported by the wider community. But how many individuals actually engage with the planning policy process?

“Very few see this as being of any relevance to their busy lives. It is only when an application materialises that local people decide to get involved but this can be too late.

“The neighbourhood plan process can enable local people to shape the future of their locality because these plans carry legal weight in the determination of planning applications.

“But there is both a community capacity issue and a funding gap that need to be resolved to help communities develop these plans.

“There is also a need to find a solution to engaging with a representative section of the local community. If these obstacles can be resolved then neighbourhood plans can help to empower communities and give them real power in the planning process.”

However, the CPRE has called for greater powers to be given to local people during the appeal process by introducing a limited third party right to appeal.

The CPRE has called for appeal powers in the planning system to be “rebalanced” amid claims that wealthy applicants use “bullying tactics” by threatening councils with costly appeals.

Neil Sinden, director of policy and campaigns at CPRE, said: “Rather then giving communities the same powers as developers in the appeals process as promised, the government is only giving them the option to approve development, not question it.

“This omission means that powerful supermarkets and other developers will be able to continue to bully and bludgeon local communities until they get the planning permissions they want.”

Mr Cairns believes that people in Southwold would benefit from the third party appeal process, as it would prevent communities feeling powerless after a council rules against them.

“In situations, such as the recent furore in Southwold, the community feels powerless to act after the council has resolved to grant consent against their views.

“It is this situation that the existing system cannot resolve. The case for a limited third party right of appeal is compelling.

“In such cases, where a significant consensus exists in the community then an appeal could be made to a higher authority. “A third party right of appeal, if carefully drafted, could prevent the alienation created when communities feel that their views have been overridden.”

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