Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the Bloomsbury Conservation Area Advisory Committee (PGP 61)



  While there are many detailed proposals, which can be warmly welcomed, and we identified these in our response to DTLR, the Advisory Committee is concerned about the underlying tenor of the document. In particular, the stress placed on the needs of business and the speed taken in reaching decisions. These concerns permeate the entire document and it would appear that the government has been talking almost exclusively to business. The planning system is supposed to operate in the general interest and not to serve the interest of a particular group, albeit a very powerful and single-minded group.

  The Green Paper states somewhat disingenuously that: "there is a perception that the system favours those with the deepest pockets and the greatest stamina". From our experience, this is not just a perception, but a statement of fact that should be obvious to anyone. BCAAC is very concerned that the proposals in this Green Paper will tend to lend further support to this inequality, despite attempts at planning aid and so on.

  While, of course, it is recognised that economic activity is crucial for our future well being, so is the effective control of development. In our country, which is one of the most densely developed in the world and where one in 20 of the world population lives, the need for proper constraint ought to be recognised.

  One fact that the document fails to mention, is the apparent lack of corruption in our system, despite the relatively poor pay received by many local government professional workers. This, of course, is in stark contrast to the fabulous financial gains involved in the development industry. It would be very dangerous for the government to take this "happy" state of affairs for granted. A greater emphasis on private sector practices and an uncritical lauding of its supposed benefits, never mind advocating their actual involvement in supervising the system, in certain circumstances, could well undermine this probity.


  There appears to be an inherent conflict in the document. On the one hand it continually, almost obsessively, addresses the issue of speed of decisions on planning applications, as though that is the only measure of a properly functioning planning system. On the other, it talks endlessly about community engagement in a more easily understandable, user friendly system. It would be very interesting to know how long it takes developers to implement their permissions. It is quite clear that they use time and delays as a weapon, to drive through schemes.

  While this is a laudable objective, in our view it is bound to mean that the more people understand the system, the more they are likely to use it to further their own concerns. This is bound to impose greater strains on the system and could result in delays to the processing of planning applications.

  The Green Paper states that all parts of the community—individuals, organisation and business—must be able to make their voices heard. It is important that they should not only be heard, but must be able to influence the final decision! The balance of advantage is with property interests—see statistic in paragraph 1.7 that 90 per cent of applications are approved in the end. The Green Paper should acknowledge the imbalance in the present system where local communities continue to be at a serious disadvantage.

  Speedier decisions are principally in the interest of business, as it takes a long time for local opposition to mobilise. Local voluntary organisations and the people they represent are often unaware of proposals until late in the day. They do not have access to a paid professional team. While proposals for pre-application discussions and community involvement are welcome, these are hardly likely to overcome the inherent inequalities in the system.

  The statement regarding targets is also a cause for concern. It is impossible to turn around decisions and ask for revisions, if applications are submitted cold, within the statutory period. In such circumstances, the only way to meet the targets is to either say yes or no. Requests for revisions, possibly in response to consultations, are out of the question.

  The system is a vital way of the public having an opportunity to impinge on the process and have an influence on their environment. Overall, if this results in some delays then BCAAC believes this is a price worth paying. If the government is sincere in wishing to encourage greater public participation in planning, then it must recognise, as has already been said, that this could result in greater potential for delay.

  Another implication of the obsession with speed is the target of 90 per cent of planning decisions being delegated to officers. This means that only one in 10 of applications would be heard in public. Therefore, the government's advocacy of objectors being able to speak at planning meetings is somewhat hollow. Of course, our local council—Camden, has long allowed for deputations to be heard, both in favour and against applications. This should be universal practice throughout the country.

  However, this is not possible for delegated decisions. Instead, there is a small panel of Camden members who consider whether or not applications that have attracted objections should go the DC-sub-committee. By encouraging further use of delegated powers, the government is ensuring that the vast majority of decisions will be taken behind closed doors. This is a real problem if there is a genuine interest to encourage more "community engagement" in the system.


  The Green Paper is suggesting that LPAs should give reasons for approving applications and this is long overdue. BCAAC firmly believes that there should be a right for third parties, in certain specific circumstances, to challenge reasons for approval, as the applicants has the right to challenge reasons for refusal. The whole system is weighted in favour of those wishing to develop and this is borne out by the 90 per cent approval rate. Such a right would help to redress the present imbalance of power and would encourage a greater degree of confidence in the equity and relevance of the system.

  While, of course, there may be practical difficulties, it must be possible in this, as in other areas, to develop workable criteria to ensure that only proper challenges were made. The suggestion by government that this right would lead to a string of court cases is, in our view very far fetched. The experience of other countries should be looked at, most notably the Republic of Ireland.

  In fact, the time and effort involved in lodging such an appeal would inhibit all but the few. An analogy can be drawn with the right to strike. Anyone who has tried to organise industrial action will know just how reluctant the majority is to exercise its fundamental human right to withdraw labour. Similarly, third party right of appeal would be a proper and healthy discipline on decision-makers, at all levels. It should be regarded, not as a concession, but as a basic human right.

  At present, the appeal system is entirely one sided as it is only the applicant who can impose unspoken pressure on hard pressed planning officers of the threat of appeal. It would be an entirely positive development for the system of development control if LPAs knew that their planning decisions could, in certain circumstances, also be challenged by third parties. It would lead to more rigorous decision making.

  Why should it contribute to uncertainty, as the government claim, unless the present system is simply an elaborate mechanism for delivering approvals across the board, while giving the semblance of being even handed? The government should trust the very people, who, in certain passages of the Green paper, it appears to patronise.


  The Mayor's role in London, acting as a committee of one may shorten discussion, but leaves London with a roaring democratic deficit. While our regional assembly, the GLA, is reduced to being little more than a talking shop. It means that local councillors cannot have a direct influence, especially on planning matters which affect their constituents.

  This conflicts with paragraph 4.53 of the Green Paper, where it states that if directly elected assemblies are established it is envisaged that they, as democratically accountable bodies, would take over the regional planning role. The Mayor's SDS will, as we understand the arrangements, not be subject to a full public inquiry. The future planning of London deserves nothing less, especially given Ken's controversial approach to planning issues such as high buildings. BCAAC is dismayed that the arrangements in London are not going to be reconsidered by the government. The government ought to give proper consideration to vesting the GLA's planning powers with the Assembly and not the Mayor. In this case, 25 heads really are better than one, and certainly more democratic!

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