Decisions For Sale

Developers have discovered devious ways of buying planning permission

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 2nd July 1996.

Last week a boring-looking document found its way to my desk. It was a confidential report from Oxford City Council’s Director of Property and Leisure Services, addressed to various committees. It announced that, on Wednesday June 26th, the planning committee had resolved to approve an application for a leisure complex. Nothing out of the ordinary, you might think – until you learn that the report was circulated on Tuesday June 25th.

Was this a joke, like the old one about the stolen results of next week’s Soviet elections? Had the council employed Mystic Meg to assist in preparing its circulars? If so, she had rendered poor service – the planning meeting was postponed until Friday, June 28th, when it made no decision. One embarrassed councillor said the report was “an administrative device”. This may be horribly true.

The council’s eagerness to approve a development which has attracted 1289 objections and four commendations, which threatens to wreck the city’s skyline and exacerbate its traffic problem, which has kindled the wrath of the Royal Fine Arts Commission and hostile publicity in the national media, may seem a little odd. After all, why should a purportedly neutral arbiter of the public good evince enthusiasm for a project which manifestly fails to serve it? But the council’s deportment, though reprehensible, is by no means unusual. All over the country, developments which seem to provide no lasting benefit for any but a few well-furnished felines are fervently embraced. Why?

There is no single answer, but the code which cracks the greater part of this riddle is contained in a term which speaks crabbed volumes of official euphemism and obfuscation: “planning gain.” The English translation is legalised bribery.

Developers are entitled to modify the plans they present to a local authority by introducing benefits to the community, such as a clump of affordable homes in the midst of an executive estate, or a new bus shelter outside a supermarket. “Gains” like this, which relate directly to the original development, are largely unobjectionable; but increasingly developers have found that they can curry more favour by shifting the gain “offsite”, offering to build a sports hall or a roundabout on the other side of town, if only the council will allow them to build a superstore here. Often the offer of cash comes first, the decision about what to do with it, later.

It’s hard to find a big development in which offsite “planning gains” do not feature. In Oxford, the leisure complex developer has agreed to spend £45,000 on roads and bridges and £35,000 on upgrading a distant swimming pool. In Plymouth, Sainsbury rewarded the local authority with a total of nearly £5 million worth of developments, including a tourist information centre and a birdwatchers’ hide. In Stornoway, Safeway offered the Western Isles Island Council £375,000 for a sports ground if it refused planning permission for the Co-op to establish a rival store.

It is often only by accident that we stumble across such deals. Out of the public eye, our representatives are auctioning public interest to the highest bidder.

Planning is perceived as monumentally tedious. It is the territory of bureaucrats and busybodies, nimbies and nutcases. Yet, perhaps more nearly than any other aspect of government, it prescribes both the control over and the quality of our existence. Planning is the means by which development (the force which shapes our lives) is brought to public account. When it fails, development ceases to work for the public good, and works instead for those who have money to make from it.

The results of our system’s shortcomings are manifest all over the country. We are, as a nation, simultaneously over-developed and under-developed, with too many superstores, office blocks, motorways and expensive housing, and too few affordable homes, community projects, urban green spaces and rural escape hatches. The abuse of planning gain is not the only lever with which such decision-making is prised out of our hands, but it grows stronger every year.

The problem is hardly ameliorated by central government. In 1991, Sir George Young, then Minister for Planning, enthused that “a planning gain would … provide facilities that the public purse could never have afforded”. The Department of Environment’s subsequent cries that planning permission will not be bought and sold sound bold to the layman, but register scarcely a squeak in the ears of the professionals. If the local authority and the developer are both happy about the deal, the DoE will leave them alone. It will step in only if the developer complains. The keys to the blood bank have been handed to the vampires. There is scarcely a more urgent task than to snatch them back.