The Price of Dissent

People are being ruined for opposing development

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 10th February 2000

It is not easy to sympathise with the residents of Kensington and Chelsea. They are, after all, the people who inflicted upon us first Alan Clark and then Michael Portillo. You can’t help imagining that the entire borough consists of armour-plated socialites who close their eyes when they talk to you, and sleek bankers with second homes and crocodile smiles. But, like most of the affluent parts of London, Kensington and Chelsea has surprisingly deep pockets of poverty. Thirty-eight per cent of the inhabitants of the Earl’s Court ward, for example, live in social housing.

Like impoverished people throughout Britain, one of their major concerns is traffic. The lives of the poor are blighted by inequitable mobility: the capacity of the rest of the world to move past them, and their own incapacity to move away. In 1997, the Government insisted that the borough turn three of its roads into “red routes”: narrow urban motorways designed to speed up the traffic. Local people knew that the traffic volume, the noise and pollution outside their homes would increase, and they started casting around for the means to challenge the Government’s decision. Before long, they discovered that they had only one option: to take the council to court in the hope of forcing it to hold a public inquiry.

They lost, and the four people who brought the case are now faced with costs of some £150,000. Two weeks ago, the council decided that, if necessary, it would send in the bailiffs. If you kill someone through careless driving, you can expect to get away with a £500 fine. If you challenge the schemes which generate the traffic, you can expect to be ruined.

There is scarcely a more expensive pursuit in Britain than objecting to development. A few weeks ago I was handed a copy of a letter sent by solicitors for Sainsbury’s to a man who had contested a compulsory purchase order. “We recognise”, the solicitors tenderly informed him, “that these situations are often uncomfortable for an objector without an interest in the land … especially because such a person is not protected against any award of costs.” Warnings like this are common. Developers threaten both individual objectors and local authorities, insisting that if they don’t receive approval for their schemes, they will go to appeal. If they win, the council could face costs of hundreds of thousands of pounds. Councillors have been warned that if they don’t approve certain development schemes, they could be individually surcharged.

In every other country in the European Union, local people can use the planning system to object to development. In Britain, only developers can appeal against a council’s decision: the arguments of objectors are officially inaudible, even when the council has granted planning permission for a scheme not envisaged in its local plan. Appealing to the ombudsman is useless: objectors have to demonstrate both that the local authority is guilty of maladministration and that the development would have been rejected if the case had been handled properly. Even if they succeed, the ombudsman has no powers to enforce her decision. Judicial review is both formidably expensive and unlikely to work: applicants have to demonstrate that a council’s decision was “unlawful, perverse or procedurally improper”, and their claims will be judged on the narrowest technical criteria.

The control of development is the single most important determinant of our quality of life. It decides whether or not a city or a district has sufficent employment, and whose needs that employment meets. It determines whether the poor are housed, whether children have open spaces in which to play, whether the air is breathable, the streets safe, the community extant. When we are unable to object to development, the key decisions about how we live are taken by people who hope to profit from our exclusion.

Before the General Election, Labour pledged to give British people a right of appeal against development decisions not approved by the local plan. But, like the robust Freedom of Information Act the party promised, planning reform now appears to have been re-classified by No 10 as a “chattering classes issue”, meaning that the need for change is understood only by people who are reasonably well-informed. As the numbers of such people are likely to be small, the promise can safely be broken. If, as Jorg Haider claims, there are “similarities” between his programme and Tony Blair’s, then this is surely where they lie.

Instead of the democratisation the Government promised, it is now speeding up the planning process in response to “business need”, relaxing development constraints “to promote competition”, transferring the right to question major developments from local people to a cruelly-whipped Parliament and toying with the idea of restricting the number of objectors who can speak at public inquiries.

Unheard, unrepresented, we can only watch as the subtle threads which tie our surroundings together are snapped, passive onlookers upon our own dereliction. We were promised a people’s Britain, but in what sense does it belong to us if we cannot determine how it develops?