Making a Mockery of Localism

The government’s claim that local people will have more say over planning is an outright lie.

By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website 6th September 2011

The government is telling us two stories, which don’t seem to connect. New building, it says, will be approved with less control than before. And local people will, it says, be given control over new building. How can both claims be true? Answer: they can’t and aren’t.

The first claim is correct. Planning in England is being so thoroughly gutted that it is, in effect, being shut down altogether. As my column yesterday showed, when you read the small print in the government’s draft national planning policy framework, you find clauses which make it more or less impossible for local authorities to say no to anything, however inappropriate and destructive it might be.

But that’s all right – isn’t it? – because what councils can’t do, local people can, through the localism agenda and the neighbourhood plans the government has announced. That was the promise. When you read the draft document, you find that this promise has been broken: broken to the extent that the government almost seems to be mocking us.

The document maintains that neighbourhood plans, drawn up by ordinary folk, “give communities direct power to plan the areas in which they live.” They will be able to “develop a shared vision for their neighbourhood”.

But read on, and you soon discover that these powers can be used only one way: to commission development, but not to prevent it. “Neighbourhoods will have the power to promote more development than is set out in the strategic policies of the Local Plan”. Communities will be able to grant planning permission for this extra building through Neighbourhood Development Orders and Community Right to Build Orders.

In other words, you’ll be allowed to give developers what they want. You will not be allowed to prevent developers from wrecking your neighbourhood. The only right you’ll have to protect anything is designating land as “local green space”, though the draft makes it clear that this applies only to small parcels of land “of particular local significance”, which communities can apply to defend when the local plan is drawn up. But people can do this already, under the Commons Act 2006, which allows for the creation of town and village greens.

How different all this is to the promises both parties made in opposition, that they would empower communities to fight damaging and unnecessary developments.

To understand these promises, you first have to grasp an extraordinary fact at the heart of the planning system. If a developer’s proposal is turned down by the local authority, he can appeal against the decision. If he loses the appeal, he can either alter the plan and re-submit it, or wait for a period and re-submit the original plan. As long as he has enough money, he can do this endlessly. Big developers such as Tesco keep appealing and re-submitting until they grind down the resistance of local people and get what they want. The objectors must fight, fight and fight again. The developers know that eventually they’ll become exhausted and give up.

But while there is perpetual scope to hold local authorities to account for their refusals, they cannot be held to account for their approvals. There is no right of appeal against a decision to award planning permission. This applies even in cases when the local authority making the decisions has a commercial interest in the development (in other words when it acts as defendant, judge and jury); when the development is against the local plan and when planning officers have recommended that it should not be approved.

The only right objectors have is to apply to the High Court for a judicial review of the decision. But there are two problems with this approach. The first is that the decision cannot be challenged on planning grounds, but only on the grounds that correct procedures were not followed when the decision was made. The second is that it can cost the person who takes the application to court hundreds of thousands of pounds. In almost all circumstances, in other words, this is a useless provision. As the House of Commons Library points out, the cost of judicial review means that it’s likely to be of more use to big developers than to local people:

“It tends to be a more suitable option for a company involved in extensive development (like a chain of supermarkets) wishing to establish a legal point that may help in future applications, rather than for private objectors.”

Altogether, in other words, there is a profoundly undemocratic imbalance between the rights granted to developers and the rights granted to local people. The existing planning system bends over backwards to prevent people from curbing the schemes of property developers, supermarkets, road builders and airport operators. It’s as if there were no higher value in life than corporate profits.

This imbalance will be greatly exacerbated by the government’s proposed new presumption in favour of development. Local authorities, it says, should “approve all individual proposals wherever possible … the default answer to development proposals is ‘yes'”.

In February 2010, in its publication Open Source Planning, the Conservative Party promised that:

“We will make the system symmetrical by allowing appeals against local planning decisions from local residents, as well as from developers”

In their report Blueprint for a Green Economy, published in 2007, the Conservatives promised sharply to reduce the scope of developers’ rights of appeal. It proposed a reform of the planning system in completely the opposite direction to the one now being pursued by the coalition.

In their manifesto before the general election, the LibDems announced that:

“We will create a third-party right of appeal in cases where planning decisions go against locally agreed plans.”

All broken, all swept away in the speculators’ charter commissioned at the behest of the coalition’s landowning chums. The draft planning document is the most blatant product of cronyism and corporate power that this government has yet produced. And that’s not for want of competition.