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………

Lydiate & Maghull – Those Neighbourhood Plan Referendums – We were given a vote on the wrong Plan!

Here I am looking at what was protected Green Belt and presently still is high grade agricultural land off Lambshear Lane in Lydiate. It’s been reserved as building land in Sefton’s Local Plan.

If you live in either community did you vote in the 2 separate referendums on the Lydiate or Maghull NP’s on 18th December? I did but with little enthusiasm even though I had a hand in putting the Lydiate one together.

Why my lack of enthusiasm? Because these Neighbourhood Plans will have only marginal influence on the big planning issues that people are concerned about. The significant issues were all ‘settled’ when Sefton Borough’s Local Plan was controversially rammed through Sefton Council by its Labour majority.

It’s the Sefton Local Plan that we should have had a referendum on!

I must admit to being baffled by the publicity surrounding the two NP referendums with even our local MP seemingly getting over-excited about them in the Champion newspaper. You’d have thought that these NP’s were game changers in the world of urban planning because of the hype, when in fact they are only very limited in their effect.

Did I vote yes?. Yes, I did. Would it have made any difference if I had not voted for the Lydiate plan or if either of the plans had been rejected? No, not really.

In simple terms, the electorate was given the chance to vote on the wrong plan. Now a vote on Sefton’s Local Plan, which only Sefton Councillors were able to back or sack, would have been very significant and well worth getting excited about. Why? Because that Local Plan defined which parcels of Green Belt and high-grade agricultural land will be built on across Sefton Borough. In other words, it defined 95% of planning guidance for Sefton Borough whilst the public (on this occasion in Maghull & Lydiate) was thrown a ‘democratic’ option to approve, or not approve’ around just 5% of that guidance.

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

Sorry, I really can’t get excited about a worthy but hardly significant NP for my Lydiate community when I’ve had a hugely controversial Local Plan imposed on me by Sefton Council’s ruling political establishment. The massive Maghull East urban extension, to be built on the highest grades of agricultural land, will still be built – The Maghull NP does not stop that. And in Lydiate, the allocated sites for building houses (again mostly on high-grade agricultural land which feeds us) are unchanged by that community’s NP.

We were thrown one bag of Kevin Carrots to approve or disapprove

As I say the vote was on the wrong plan. We were thrown one bag of Kevin carrots to approve or disapprove of when we should have been considering whether it is wise to build on field after field of them across the joint communities of Lydiate and Maghull.

Labour excited about an Eric Pickles inspired policy

It was also strange how excited the political party (which voted through Sefton’s Local Plan) got about the two Neighbourhood Plans whilst also trying to give the impression that their Local Plan had been nothing to do with them at all. Even odder when you consider that Neighbourhood Plans were promoted by none other than the Tory’s Eric Pickles.

There’s nothing wrong with the Lydiate Neighbourhood Plan, I might add, in case you were wondering. It’s just that the context of it and indeed the importance of it has been completely over-played in my view. I have had nothing to do with the Maghull NP I should add.

Maghull – An odd story about the Town’s Neighbourhood Plan

I read the story in this week’s Aintree and Maghull Champion whilst doing a fair of scratching my head because it just seemed so odd.

The article talked about Maghull’s Neighbourhood Plan as being ‘launched’ and for all the world the article read as though the process of compiling the plan has been completed.

BUT, like all other Neighbourhood Plans, it needs to go before a Planning Inspector and be subject to a referendum of Maghull’s electors before it’s a done deal, yet nothing of this was mentioned.

Now don’t get me wrong the newspaper could not possibly know all the ins and outs of Neighbourhood Planning processes so must have been going on what they had been told by Maghull Town Council I guess.

So the bottom line is that the Maghull Neighbourhood plan can’t possibly have been ‘launched’ and the best that can be said is that it has reached another stage in an ongoing and lengthy process.

Lydiate – More work on that Neighbourhood Plan

Yes I know it seems to go on forever, putting one together for Lydiate Civil Parish that is. And yes I’m still a skeptic of them, seeing NP’s as of little or marginal benefit only, at best.

But whatever I’m doing my bit to help put together the Lydiate one.

Our last Neighbourhood Plan meeting went into all kinds of detail but two particular areas really interested me, the lack of a cycle path on the A59/Northway through Lydiate and the poor state of the canal tow path through Lydiate.

What have these issues got to do with a Neighbourhood Plan you might ask. Well the connection is that when house building does takes place in Lydiate developers have to provide money to support local infrastructure. Presently that’s via a process known as Section 106 agreements. They may be morphing into CIL – Community Infrastructure Levy – but Sefton Council can’t seemingly make up its mind whether to make the change or not. But whichever process is used it means that the Parish Council can try to direct how up to 25% of that money is spent.

The two major areas that we have identified, via our NP process, are upgrading the tow path of the Leeds Liverpool Canal tow path through Lydiate and addressing the lack of a cycle lane alongside the A59/Northway through Lydiate.

The following 2 photos from 2014 show the canal tow path as little more than a rut in the grass alongside the canal:-

Looking north from Pilling Lane bridge along the canal

Looking south from Pilling Lane bridge along the canal.

It’s still the same now and we want it upgraded so that cyclists and pedestrians can make greater use of it. A wider hard wearing surface is required.

With regard to the cycle path along the A59/Northway, it comes to an abrupt halt at Robin’s Island. North of here there are cycle paths on either side of the dual carriageway through Aughton Civil Parish. We would like to see a safe cycle path/route coming into Lydiate. Here’s a photo of the end of the cycle path as you reach Robins Island from Aughton direction:-

A59 Cycle path becomes narrow pavement at Robins Island.

So there are a couple of our stated ambitions in the draft NP for Lydiate. Lydiate folk will get to vote on the plan, via local referendum, before it is finalised I might add.

Click on the photos to enlarge them

Lydiate – Looking at its emerging Neighbourhood Plan

Well the first thing to say is that it will most certainly not set all Lydiate resident’s hearts a flutter. A worthy if unexciting plan is about the best I can say based on the drafts I have seen to date.

And that’s not to belittle the work of Lydiate Parish Council and those who have helped pull the emerging plan together (including myself I might add), it’s just that the world will continue to turn pretty much the way it has done with or without Lydiate’s Neighbourhood Plan.

As I have said many times a neighbourhood plan can’t lead to less Green Belt being grabbed or less high grade agricultural land being built upon. This is because Sefton Council’s Local Plan has already set such in stone and neighbourhood plans can’t change that unless they are proposing a greater loss of Green Belt, more housing etc. Once Sefton Council decided to allow building on what is presently farmed land, Green Belt etc. the dye was cast.

Yes I know some folks said and some even believed that if community ‘X’ had a neighbourhood plan that the amount of housing to be built could be reduced and that some if not all of the threatened Green Belt could be saved. Sadly, this was at best either highly unrealistic expectations or deliberate misinformation.

But there is one small but clear advantage to a Parish Council in Sefton Borough (or anywhere else) in putting together a Neighbourhood Plan. That advantage, to the parish councils, is that when Sefton Council finally adopts the new way of leveraging out community benefits from property developers (Community Infrastructure Levy or CIL) parish councils who have a neighbourhood plan will have more say in how it is spent than under the present Section 106 system. Under CIL a parish council gets to say how 25% of the money (extracted from a developer) is spent as opposed to 15% where there is no neighbourhood plan in place.

Typically such S106/CIL money is used to improve roads, develop local infrastructure, plant trees etc. in the area close to the development.

Now the big question. Why is Sefton Council dragging its feet over the adoption the new Community Infrastructure Levy process? They have certainly been considering it for a very long time now. I hear that some planning authorities have decided not to adopt CIL and to stick with S106, if Sefton does that the last worthwhile reason to have a neighbourhood plan is out of the window. Time will tell……

Maghull – Less than 5 days to respond to Neighbourhood Plan consultation!

I’m no fan of Neighbourhood Plans as I think they are far too limited in what than can achieve for a community. However, Maghull Town Council is one amongst a number of local parish councils that is presently trying to pull one together.

But today a Maghull resident (folks still think I represent Maghull on the Council – I have not since May 2015 but had done for 30 years prior to that) got in touch with me to ask my opinion on what had just been posted through their door today the 2nd October. This is what they said:-

‘Got a MTC [Maghull Town Council] flyer today consulting on their Neighborhood Plan. It tells people to go to the Town Hall and pick up a copy of it. Wait for this, all remarks have to be back by Friday 6th October. 4 days time! I haven’t even got the document, then it would have to be read before an opinion could be formed. Is this a joke or what. A real, proper consultation?’

I suppose my first thought was surely the date printed on the flyer for responses has to be wrong but then I also thought well just how many residents are really going to traipse down to Maghull Town Hall anyway to pick up a copy of what will in all likelihood be a very dry document – hardly good bedtime reading.

The danger with a situation like this, which Maghull Town Council has placed itself in, is that it can give consultation a bad name if it is in such a tight timescale and by its nature is pretty much inaccessible to residents who probably don’t know what a Neighbourhood plan really is anyway.

Further words fail me, they really do…..