Planning – A most frustrating & often futile local council function

I spent 16 years as a Borough Councillor and for the last two of those years I sat on the Planning Committee, something I said I would never do. You see some councillors fall head over heels in love with planning and the mere suggestion they should maybe just possibly sit on another committee instead could lead to all kinds of emotional turmoil. I didn’t then and I still don’t get what the draw of the planning committee is but accept that to others being on such a committee is a bit like what Bill Shankly said of football i.e. Somebody said that football’s a matter of life and death to you, I said ‘listen, it’s more important than that.

Why are pretty much all governments determined to build as little social housing as possible?

My problem with planning is that government has far too much say on what is built and it issues more laws and regulations on the subject than it does on its continual reorganisations the NHS, and that takes some doing! Governments of all colours are obsessed with house building, because we have a housing shortage, yet their new laws and regulations always end up with the wrong type (never any or enough social housing) of houses being built in the wrong places. Well at least that seems very often be the end result no matter what the intension was.

Just contact a councillor if you are concerned about a planning application

Local residents who wish to engage in the planning process often think that lobbying members of their local planning committee, or indeed any other local councillors, will lead to significant changes being made to the plan they don’t much care for. Yet in reality the room for manoeuvre that a planning committee actually has is very small indeed. Planning in my view, having experienced it from the 1980’s onwards, is a developer’s charter dressed up as a meaningful even a democratic process.

Campaigners, outside Maghull Town Hall trying to save Sefton Borough’s high grade agricultural land from development via the then draft Local Plan in June 2013.

Local and Neighbourhood Plans

I got involved in Sefton’s Planning Committee in my final years on the Council for one reason only, to try to stop its appalling Local Plan from being rubber stamped. I failed miserably I might add and that plan is now being used to concrete and tarmac over acre upon acre of high grade agricultural (land which feeds us) across the Borough. As a Lydiate Parish Councillor, after I had left the Borough Council, I also took part in the putting together of a Neighbourhood Plan for Lydiate. And yes it’s a good document which a number of people who are really committed to Lydiate put together for all the right reasons. However, I’m far from convinced that Neighbourhood Plans are anything but a small sticking plaster on a planning system which is hugely failing every community across England.

And then I came across this – see link below:-

Our vision for planning

www.cpre.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Joint-vision-for-planning-January-2021.pdf

Clearly it’s a worthy attempt to bring some sort of reason to the planning process, although history teaches us it will end in failure as government really does seem to want a planning system which simply rubber stamps the building of pretty much anything anywhere. I’d like to think I am wrong of course but the cynic in me says I’m far more likely to be right sadly.

So how do Planning Committees work?

Well as planning is a quasi-judicial process it has many rules and regulations and often a contentious matter before a committee is a little like a court room drama with witnesses for the defence and prosecution. It can look very well and proper to an impartial observer yet of course the members of any planning committee are not actually free to do what they think is right by their community. They are very much constrained by reports from council officers which detail law, regulation and common practice. If they go against such reports, by say refusing an application which professional officers say they should back, then straight away the chances of the applicant winning on appeal are very much higher.

And some pretty odd things happen too. Did you read about the decision of a planning committee in Bath to refuse a 5G mast application? It’s one of those things which can be seen differently by differing participants and observers of the decision. Supposedly, much of the opposition to the mast was associated with the alleged, but certainly false, claims about the health problems associated with 5G. Of course a planning committee, even if it believed the fake news, could not use such a reason to refuse a mast as the plan would be granted on appeal without a shadow of a doubt. So what does a planning committee under huge pressure do? It will want to be seen as backing its community but if it goes anywhere near 5G conspiracy theories as a reason for refusal it will be in deep trouble. So it obviously used other reasons, within planning law and regulation, to oppose the mast only to then be accused of in effect hiding the real reason for refusal.

No planning for me as a process was as futile in practice as I long suspected it would be before I got seriously involved in it. And now having upset many a former political colleagues with my views (which should not surprise them really) I’ll await them telling me how wrong I am and how fulfilling the life of a planning committee member can be. Planning is like marmite, you love it or hate it and I know where I stand………

CPRE confirm what we anti-Local Plan campaigners have long thought

Campaigners, outside Maghull Town Hall (June 2013) trying to save Sefton Borough’s high grade agricultural land from development.

I have said many times that there is no need to build on high grade agricultural land across England. As a Sefton Councillor, a Maghull Town Councillor, Lydiate Parish Councillor and then after coming off both Sefton & Maghull Councils I fought alongside environmental campaigners opposing the Sefton Local Plan which designated high grade agricultural land for house building. We LOST….

This is a matter I’ve blogged about far more times than I care to recall but the underlying feeling of those of us opposing Local Plans across England was that there must be sufficient brownfield sites to deliver the housing* we have long been told is urgently required. However, the process to identify building land and indeed land use generally has always been flawed. Scoping it out on a council by council area basis has been looking thorough the wrong end of the telescope for me. In my view it should have been done and needs to be done at a regional level. The old process was called Unitary Development Plans but they then morphed into Local Plans although still tackled on a council by council basis.

This article on CPRE website is very interesting and informative:-

www.cpre.org.uk/news/theres-already-enough-suitable-land-to-meet-targets-for-new-homes-we-find/ **

And as CPRE say in a Tweet today – BREAKING: We’ve found that there is enough brownfield land for 1.3 million homes – enough to meet government housing targets for the next five years.

There is already enough land to build the homes we need – so why deregulate the planning system?

* Of course we campaigners against the Sefton Local Plan were not just concerned about the concreting over high grade agricultural land, but what kind of houses would be built anyway. Many of us were of the view that the real housing need in England is in the social housing sector. On that basis councils, like Sefton, were not only sacrificing the land the feeds us for housing but they were not even gaining much if any social housing in the process!

** Whilst this article is mainly focused on the Tory plan for further planning deregulation (build what you want where you want) it, in my view, also exposes the flawed nature of Local Plans and their predecessor Unitary Development Plans.

Green Belt loss – Well I’m not surprised, are you?

The vast Maghull East development (presently high grade agricultural land) site as seen from Poverty Lane, Maghull

New Government data backs CPRE Green Belt figures – the story is on the CPRE’s web site via the link below:-

www.cpre.org.uk/media-centre/latest-news-releases/item/4973-new-government-data-backs-cpre-green-belt-figures?utm_medium=email&utm_source=engagingnetworks&utm_campaign=campaigns-update-2018-oct-nonmembers&utm_content=Campaigns+Update+2018+Oct+-+non+members

Quote from CPRE article – New statistics from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government show the largest increase in the amount of Green Belt land released for housing to date

An analysis of the new Government data released today (4 October) by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) shows that since 2012 almost 10,000 hectares of Green Belt land have been released from ‘protected’ Green Belt boundaries by local councils. Ten councils have together released more than 5,000 hectares in the past year alone [1].

Can’t say I’m in any way surprised having spent years trying to stop building on Green Belt and the highest grades of agricultural land in Sefton Borough and now hearing of even more Green Belt development in neighbouring West Lancashire.

Where on earth is the connect between housing, planning, food production and environmental policies here in the UK? And what’s so galling is that even when this precious food growing land is lost we will still not end up with the types of housing that we actually need!

Building on Green Belt does not provided much at all in terms of affordable housing

Well I’ve been singing that tune for a very long time now, with specific reference to the encroachment onto the Green Belt in Sefton Borough. The BBC has the story on its web site – see link below:-

www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-45079648

My major objection to the vast amount of Green Belt being lost to housing in Sefton Borough, especially with regard to the Maghull & Lydiate area, was of course that the land is predominately high grade arable land that grows the food we eat. To sacrifice such land when only around 2% of England is made up of this level of land quality is utter madness to me.

But of course that very same land is also in Sefton’s Green Belt, so Maghull’s vast urban extension (see lead photo) which is down to be built to the east of the Town in due course means that both high quality food growing land and Green Belt will be lost for ever.

The large red area is the ‘Maghull East’ urban extension to the Town. The M58 Junction 1 is in grey – top right with Prescot Road running north to south on the far right of the map.

Of course I know that we have a housing crisis and I realise that Governments, Councils and many individuals are happy to sacrifice food growing high grade agricultural land to get what they see as much needed housing. But hang on a minute where is the housing crisis in reality? It’s mainly with the affordable housing and the social rented sector and it’s because of the lack of such housing that huge pressure is put on the rest of the housing market.

We are kicking our precious food growing land and Green Belt into touch to gain the very sort of housing that we are not crying out for!

So what do we need? We need really affordable housing and social rented housing because the roots of our housing crisis are well planted within the right to buy legislation of the 1980’s. That the money raised from the sale of what were council houses was not used to build more social housing has substantially created the problems we are now living with. On that basis much of the house building required is affordable and social housing but it’s not! it’s more 3, 4 and 5 bedroomed houses for sale and we are kicking our precious food growing land and Green Belt into touch to gain the very sort of housing that we are not crying out for!

Housing ‘Viability Assessments’ the developers tool to back out of affordable housing

www.cpre.org.uk/media-centre/latest-news-releases/item/4785-Rural-communities-denied-affordable-housing-as-developers-exploit-loophole?utm_source=cpre&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=viable_villages&utm_medium=email&utm_source=engagingnetworks&utm_campaign=2018-viability-report-email&utm_content=2018+viability+campaigns+email

This is a serious problem and I recall seeing builders trying to back out of building the ‘required’ number of affordable homes on development sites during my time on Sefton Council’s Planning Committee. Oh and yes the term ‘affordable homes’ is vague and open to differing interpretations itself.

So have a look at the link above from CPRE (Council for the Protection of Rural England) as their video captures one route developers use to maximise their profit at the expense of the kind of homes communities actually need.

Yes I know, regular readers may recall that I have had my issues with CPRE’s approach to housing matters in Sefton Borough in the past but this campaign is spot on.

Wrong Houses being being built in the wrong places? CPRE has hit a very important nail on the head here

www.cpre.org.uk/media-centre/latest-news-releases/item/4675-the-wrong-homes-in-the-wrong-places?utm_medium=email&utm_source=engagingnetworks&utm_campaign=campaigns-update-oct-2017-nonmembers&utm_content=Campaigns+Update+2017+Oct+-+non+members

The Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) has the story on its web site – see link above

I have long thought that here in Sefton Borough we are not addressing local housing needs despite Sefton Council allocating acre after acre of the highest grades of agricultural land for more new housing.

My focus has not only been on protecting high grade agricultural land from development (because it grows the food that we eat!) but also, where we do build houses, they really do need to meet local need. Like many folk I see building more 3 and 4 bedroom houses as being a part of the problem not a solution to the UK housing shortage.

No the real housing need is affordable housing, social housing for rent and housing suitable for our aging population i.e. more single level accessible housing.

The CPRE stance in many way mirrors my own concerns although they seem to have missed out housing for the elderly, which must be a national housing matter not just one related to Sefton Borough. Build housing that the elderly want to move into and it will free up family housing; it’s not rocket science!

I’ve had my issues with CPRE in the past in that I thought they were too laid back with regard to house building on prime agricultural land and Green Belt in Sefton. I also questioned their political leanings when they attended a meeting in Crosby that was not properly party politically balanced. But I think they are on the right track here with regard to their Wrong homes, Wrong Place campaign.

Trouble is governments of all colours have been making a mess of housing policy for generations now.

And only very recently a Conservative Social Care minister jumped back into the so called ‘dementia tax’ solution so favoured by the Tories at the last election and which all but sunk them in June 2017.

It seems the Tories are still arguing that homes are not assets for parents to pass on to their children. That’ll go down well with the voters – NOT!

My point here is that the Tories are still on the wrong path as they remain blind to the need for single level housing that is truly accessible. They don’t seem to understand that older people would move house if there was somewhere they could move to as they get older, at a reasonable cost. As there is not enough such housing many don’t or can’t move out of 3 and 4 bedroom houses because they can’t afford to.

Thanks to Roy Connell for his contribution to this posting