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Planning and local democracy

  • by JW

“We are disappointed that ministers have missed this opportunity to strengthen local democracy and have instead opted for policies that circumvent local communities.”

Nonetheless, Downing Street is adamant that using more digital technology will in fact make planning more democratic rather than less as local residents can put their views across easily and monitor the progress of applications.


We are being promised a planning revolution, “… unlike anything we have seen since the second world war”:

The ‘planning revolution’ in house building – consultation launched – Vision Group for Sidmouth


There are fundamental contradictions, however:


…. the emphasis on beautiful buildings in today’s white paper, along with a continuing commitment to the green belt… 

Will Boris’s planning shake-up end in another Tory fight? | The Spectator


The proposals are intended to speed up the planning process and support small building firms – but risk a backlash from conservation groups which fear uncontrolled development in areas of high demand and a possible loss of wildlife.

Every council must produce plan to build more homes under Government’s latest shake-up of planning regime


And there are concerns about the impact on local democracy:


Nonetheless, Downing Street is adamant that using more digital technology will in fact make planning more democratic rather than less as local residents can put their views across easily and monitor the progress of applications…

Conservatives walk a fine line on housing reform as free-market instincts clash with interests of leafy shire towns


Laurie Macfarlane of openDemocracy writes an excoriating piece in today’s Guardian:


… But, concealed beneath the cuddly rhetoric about “affordable, green and beautiful homes”, lies a ferocious attack on democracy. Under the current system there are two opportunities for democratic participation in the planning system: first, at the formation of a local plan which sets out the strategic priorities for development in an area; and then at the planning application stage of individual developments, which tends to be many years later. Under the proposed reforms, the second stage of consultation will be scrapped. As a result, only those with psychic powers to foresee future developments will be able to object to them at the initial plan-making stage. Democratic oversight of individual developments will soon be a thing of the past.

This is, of course, intentional. More than anything else, the reforms serve to transfer power away from local elected representatives and towards private developers, who will be able to build whatever they like, unopposed. The significance of this should not be underestimated. From now on, our built environment will be shaped around the interests of shareholder value, unchecked by democratic accountability…

The Tories’ planning overhaul is a ferocious attack on democracy | Planning policy | The Guardian


A view echoed in a letter to the Independent:


Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, does not seem to be entirely au fait with his new planning proposals. He is on record as saying that planning decisions under the government’s new scheme will have “local democracy at the heart of the process”. However, it has been pointed out that the move to the proposed system lessens the possibility of accountability or input from the public.

At the moment, in England, we have a two-stage procedure where the public and councillors can make observations on individual planning applications and the creation of a local plan. The new “reforms” would allow only one chance for local oversight to be exercised (ie when the design code is drawn up).

It is worth saying too that a much more imaginative approach than that taken by Jenrick is Amsterdam’s, which has adapted the “doughnut economics” model as a city-level approach to planning. The framework there – shaped like a doughnut and combining the idea of planetary boundaries with the corresponding concept of social boundaries – was proposed to balance economic and social needs with environmental considerations. It’s a truly holistic approach which seems a great deal more imaginative than the market-driven plans now being put forward.

The government’s planning scheme is designed to keep local democracy as far away as possible | The Independent

See also: ‘Doughnut’ model can mend post-coronavirus economy – Vision Group for Sidmouth


Again from the Guardian, there is a more general warning about dangers to the democratic process:


The planning system is many things, but above all it is a democratic promise. It is a guarantee that places will not simply develop according to the interests of whoever owns the land, but will also be shaped by public interest. To build, you need public consent.

The government hasn’t just made it easier to turn shops into homes: it has effectively greenlit any demolition of vacant property as long as homes are built in its place. It has also allowed homeowners to build two extra storeys without seeking permission. In other words, it has kneecapped the planning system, and broken the democratic promise it offers. It did all this the day before parliament broke up for the summer, introducing secondary legislation which is difficult to overturn. And these are just the first steps: later in the year it will be announcing a full reform of the planning system with the intention of making it easier to build. Few are hopeful that this will protect the public’s ability to influence what gets built…

A great deal of democratic energy is channelled by the planning system. If that system is undermined, the energy will not disappear. It will simply be redirected, either through the ballot box or through local flare-ups that blow back on the government. This is a political operation convinced of its ability to hear the voice of the people. Perhaps it needs to listen a little more closely.

Giving more power to housing developers puts the UK’s high streets at risk | Will Brett | Opinion | The Guardian


However, it is not only the liberal, government-unfriendly press that is showing profound doubts about plans to change planning law and its effect on local democracy…


Hugh Ellis, director of policy at the Town & Country Planning Association, writes for Inside Housing:


Proposals trailed in the Sunday papers to change England’s planning system risk undermining democracy and trust.

Since Jack Airey, the author of a report advocating a shift to zonal planning, moved into the Number 10 policy unit, there has been much discussion about what a move to zonal planning might actually mean. On Sunday, we got a clearer idea of what a zonal planning system for England would look like: just three zones, allocated for either growth, renewal or protection.

…the heart of this debate is about local accountability and democracy. Zonal planning would give just one opportunity for democracy, when the code was prepared and then reviewed. So this is a straight trade-off between certainty and democracy. Zonal code-based planning can provide greater certainty to all parties about the outcomes of planning decisions. And this may be seen as an attractive proposition to some frustrated with the current system…

There are many problems with the existing planning system around resources and genuine community participation, but zonal planning isn’t the answer to these questions. Strengthening the status of the plan would create multiple benefits for the public and private sectors trust in planning. It would also curtail a highly speculative land market which relies on a proposition that local plans and local plan policy can be gamed for private advantage. You don’t need to remove democratic oversight of decisions to achieve this objective.

What we are being sold in arguments for a move to zonal planning is soft words about design, but the devil is in the detail of whether the new codes will actually uphold standards on health and well-being. We are being asked to accept this on trust while one half of the democratic basis of local planning is removed. This is a bad deal for communities and a sad day for local democracy.

Inside Housing – Comment – Zonal planning is undemocratic planning


Finally, on the ground ‘in the shires’, there is a growing disquiet rumbling:


The London Green Belt Council (LGBC), representing more than 100 local community organisations and amenity societies across London and the Home Counties, says the government’s proposals for planning reform provides some protection for green belt and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty but threatens to undermine local democracy and restrict community involvement in planning.

The Planning White Paper by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) was released today (August 6). Andy Smith, LGBC secretary, said: “We are disappointed that ministers have missed this opportunity to strengthen local democracy and have instead opted for policies that circumvent local communities. We are also concerned about potential reductions in building standards resulting from the government’s intention to ‘fast-track’ developments at the expense of quality and the environment.”

Guildford Dragon NEWS | The Guildford Dragon