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………

Liverpool City Region – Underwhelmed by lackluster submission for delegated powers

So our 6 Labour Council Leaders from across Merseyside have put in their plea to George Osborne for him to give the City Region some crumbs from his devolution table. I must say I am sadly underwhelmed by their bid though.

This posting is not an attempt to comment on the document page by page but I am picking out things that caught my eye, or are a particular policy interest area for me or where I think the document is deficient.

Firstly the laugh out loud moments from the 25 page document:-

We are working together!!!! – ‘We have a proven track record of being able to decide priorities locally’ and ‘We have also proven our ability to work together collectively’. No not made up it’s there in the document! Bearing in mind how our Labour Council Leaders have seemingly squabbled like ferrets in a sack for years in public via the press you wonder whether they were able to keep their faces straight when they signed a document going to Government saying they were now best mates who will stick by each other.

Metro Mayor!- But moving on through this rather uninspiring document which could hardly be said to be innovative or motivating we come to a paragraph on page 3 which effectively gives the Metro Mayor game away. It says ‘We also recognise that the “prize” of devolution may necessitate a “price” to be paid in respect of the government’s stated aim of introducing an elected mayor for the City Region. We are prepared to consider making a change in our local governance arrangements……….’ Is this the Merseyside Labour Council Leaders waving the white flag and falling in behind Joe Anderson, who seems to want to rule Merseyside? Yes I believe it is and in the words of Dave Allen ‘may your God go with you’.

We cost Treasury too much? – There is an interesting and I take it to be accurate statement to the effect that the Liverpool City Region area spends two pounds on public services for every one it raises in taxation and this means the City Region has the largest relative gap between tax raised and public spending in England. £9.5 billion generated for the Treasury but £18.6bn back in public spending. A sobering thought indeed.

More Cuts? – This also caught my eye ‘there are potentially efficencies and cost savings to be gained if greater control and coordination of government funding and activity is devolved to the City Region’. This could be interpreted as room for more cuts of course.

These are the tickets my family were given when we walked through the new (2nd) Tunnel in 1971

These are the tickets my family were given when we walked through the new (2nd) Tunnel in 1971

Mersey Tunnel tolls – One of the ‘Asks’ of government is that ‘Legislative clarity on the ability to utilise [Mersey] tunnel toll income for wider economic development purposes’. That should go down a bundle with residents of the Wirral in particular! This ‘ask’ seems to be linked to another ‘ask’ which requests government to pay off the loans to build the tunnels. Of course a proportion of the toll money is presently used to fund the debt repayments. I think tunnel users would want to know what their extra tax would be paying for if it was not to pay off the loans to build the tunnels. Indeed you could expect them to want lower tolls if the tunnel debts are paid off by government.

The present Merseyrail rolling stock Class 507/8 EMU's) at Southport Station.

The present Merseyrail rolling stock Class 507/8 EMU’s) at Southport Station.

A train ‘ask’ – There an ‘ask’ about our promised (many times) replacement rolling stock for Merseyrail to ‘reduce the financial risks’. This is linked to needing long term certainty over the Special Rail Grant that Merseyside gets each year. A reasonable request I would think here.

A blast from the past a former Ribble Lydiate bound 321 bus in model form. Sadly it's another lost route for Lydiate residents.

A blast from the past a former Ribble Lydiate bound 321 bus in model form. Sadly it’s another lost route for Lydiate residents.

A buses ‘ask‘ is to ‘secure the ability to franchise local bus services, to ensure that they have the required reach, penetration, quality and pricing structure and serve the needs of the Liverpool City Region’. This may well, depending on what it actually means, turn the Tories Bus Deregulation Act of the early 1980’s on its head (or drive a bus through it at least) and not before time I say. BUT bearing in mind that the thrust of this submission to government acknowledges in effect that austerity is here to stay then it does not mean more subsidy for bus services unless of course that is where the tunnel tolls may be siphoned off?

Campaigners, outside Maghull Town Hall trying to save Sefton Borough's high grade agricultural land from development.

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

Housing and Spacial Planning – Some very worthy stuff here but what is so obviously missing? Well as far as Sefton Borough is concerned it’s protection of its high grade agricultural land from development. So is the fact that the City Region is not making a request to government for local powers to protect it the final admission that the City Region and Sefton Council do not want to?

Energy – Some good stuff here about support for the proposed offshore tidal lagoon and also a request for powers to maximise the potential of renewable energy. But even then this is hardly taking the ‘green’ agenda and running with it, surely we should be aiming to be the most energy efficient City Region in Europe? Where’s the ambition to inspire?

City Region Mayor Powers – If there was any doubt that our glorious Leaders are now all but fully behind a City Region Mayor then this quote leaves no room for any doubt:-

*To consider whether an elected Liverpool City Region Mayor should take over the role of the directly elected Police and Crime Commissioner and the role of the Fire Authority.

There are other ‘asks’ about Children’s Services, Education, Cultural Partnership, Health – Wellbeing and Social Care, a Free Trade Zone, European Funding, Skills & Employment and Business Support but I have not touched on those areas in this posting.

My conclusion is that frankly the submission is too bland and it lacks ambition. Here was a great opportunity to lay out a radical plan to fundamentally change the health, wealth and environmental sustainability of Merseyside and it has been an opportunity lost. It strikes me, as a former Council Leader, as one of those documents written by Council Officers and then signed off/rubber stamped by politicians. Even if government gave it the green light on all the ‘asks’ I can’t see it changing the outcomes of Merseyside residents much at all.

I wonder if it will get the green light from government (with a few tweaks along the way) because all the Tories really seem to want is the appearance of devolution and a Metro Mayor. If so government will say they have negotiated a fine deal to empower Merseyside and local council leaders will say they got virtually every possible concession from government and the Metro Mayor has been forced on them. But in the real world not much will change other than we all get that damn Metro Mayor idea imposed on us and another highly paid politician to lord it over us.