A planning committee doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons

A salutary tale for all those planning committee councillors, who continue to make ‘political’ decisions on planning applications.
It’s a lengthy article, but the lesson to be learned from it is a very simple one – there’s no place in the development control process for the Localism agenda.
It’s particularly disappointing to read the chairman of this council’s strategic planning committee comments. Assuming that’s this not the title of their committee for determining planning applications, he’s failed to acknowledge the completely different roles of these two committees.
The strategic planning committee is the one that produces the council’s Local Plan and the one charged with challenging job of balancing public opinion and national planning guidance and policies.
If the public wants to influence the planning process, then they need to do so during the plan making stage, which is what, is a slightly obscure fashion, the Localism agenda directs. Waiting until a planning application is submitted, to object to a major housing development, or to a proposal for a large industrial site, is far too late and unlikely to succeed, at least in principle, no matter how loud, or well organised the public outcry is. Yes, the planners will listen to concerns about the details, or even about the layout of the development,Mobutu if the land to be built on is identified in the council’s adopted Local Plan, then the game is almost certainly already lost.
As the article details, failing to apply the council’s planning policies will cost the local tax payer dearly and still not win councillors any votes.
Finally, the appeals process isn’t perfect, but is an essential element in the planning process, especially given the aberrant behaviour of some council planning committees.

Cornwall Council’s bill for costs rises as developers win more planning appeals. By West Briton | Posted: December 18, 2014

The number of successful appeals over refusal of planning permission, where costs have been awarded against Cornwall Council, is rising astronomically.

The figure for the amount the council must pay to cover the developers’ costs in fighting appeals against it is on target for an eight-fold increase this year, and the process has already cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds.

According to the chairman of the council’s strategic planning committee, Rob Nolan, the local authority is being penalised by the Government for turning down applications because it is going against national policies – the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which was introduced in March 2012 to help speed up house-building.

“The Government has said it wants to build its way out of the recession, and the NPPF has been described as a developer’s charter,” he says.

“At the same time, the Government bangs on about localism, giving people the impression they have a say in local development.

“Yet when we listen to local views, and refuse planning permission on what we think are sound planning grounds, we find the (Government’s) planning inspector not only turns around our decision on appeal, but grants costs against us.

“Until recently costs were only awarded against the council where we had been cavalier in our decisions.

“But now it seems they’re being used to punish us.”

Between April 2013 and March 2014, costs were awarded against the council in only eight cases. In the past six months alone, costs have been awarded against the local authority after 16 appeals.

“This is a worrying trend,” he says. “We find ourselves between a rock and a hard place.

“We want to listen to local people, we want to do what is right for Cornwall, but we can’t keep paying out awards of costs to developers.”

According to the figures from Cornwall Council, released following a freedom of information request from the West Briton, the amount of costs awarded against it – which it must pay to the developers that appeal – in 2013/2014, was just £47,000.

In the first six months of this financial year alone, the appeal payout bill was £174,000.

The council has even been penalised financially in cases when the appellant was not successful.

Most appeals are dealt with in writing between the appellant, the council’s team and the Planning Inspectorate, a government agency in Bristol.

But some go to public inquiry, with a full hearing, which escalates costs drastically because of the fees of legal teams on both sides, which often includes a QC. These inquiries can be held locally and last up to two weeks.

One such public inquiry against the refusal of plans for 12 industrial units at Pool Fields in Falmouth landed the council with a £27,000 bill after it lost the appeal.

The planning consultant on this application was CSA Architects. Its managing director, Justin Dodge, said it has received £87,000 in costs awarded against the council from three appeals alone within the past year.

He adds that another planning consultancy was awaiting confirmation of a payout in the region of £200,000 from a successful appeal against the refusal of a development of 100 houses at Upper Chapel in Launceston earlier this year.

He says that, since the NPPF, and in the absence of the Cornwall Local Plan, which would set out guidelines for granting or refusing planning permission, consultants like CSA were winning more and more appeals. Costs were increasingly being awarded against the council – a trend which looks set to continue.

“We have not needed to appeal historically,” he says. “It has only been in the last 18 months, since the new cavalier planning committees were appointed, that we have needed to take more of our cases to appeal.

“They have a complete and utter disregard for policy. They are reckless and out of control.”

During the appeal process, the appellant’s argument is usually upheld when the council has acted unreasonably.

According to Mr Dodge, the reason for CSA’s success in recent cases is that the council failed to provide enough evidence to support its reasons for refusal – which is judged at appeal as unreasonable.

“It is particularly frustrating when the professional planning officer from Cornwall Council makes a recommendation which is completely disregarded and overturned by the (councillors on the) planning committee, without any compelling rationale,” he says.

“Sadly, this has become commonplace in the last 18 months, with most committee decisions being against officer recommendations and therefore we expect to pursue more planning appeals than ever before.”

But Mr Dodge adds that most of his clients spend, on average, £15,000 to £20,000 on submitting an application, and some can spend as much as £100,000 on launching an appeal against a refusal decision, spending heavily on legal teams and consultants.

“We know planning policy inside out,” he says. “This is our business. We don’t go into planning applications light-heartedly.

“But the true cost of a planning appeals can never be fully established, including the council’s own time and resources, as well as the time delays to the projects affected by the process.”

Since the NPPF was introduced, Cornwall Council has been developing the Cornwall Local Plan – a blueprint for the amount of development and where it should be located (see panel).

This policy document, which has received input from local town and parish councils, developers and members of the public, is due to be debated at full council next month, before being sent to the Government for approval.

No-one knows how long this process will take.

Until the plan is approved, says Councillor Neil Hatton, Cornwall Council member for Constantine, Budock and Mawnan, near Falmouth, it is “open season” for developers.

“The NPPF is there to support sustainable development,” he says.

“It has certainly encouraged a lot more people to put in applications and challenge the system through the appeals inspectorate – people are testing it out.

“A lot more appeals have been based on the sustainable argument because of the lack of the local plan – it is more difficult to refuse these.

“Cornwall’s weakness is the local plan [or lack of it].

“It has not been put to the Government for approval and, while it carries a little weight, it doesn’t carry a huge amount at the moment.

“It is open season for developers at the moment without the policies in place under the local plan.”

On Tuesday of last week Mr Hatton attended an appeal against Cornwall Council’s refusal of planning permission for 153 houses on Bickland Water Road. CSA was the planning consultant on the project. After a hearing in Truro and a site visit, the planning inspector’s decision is likely to be made next month.

Planning consultant Stephen Payne says the NPPF was designed to encourage “more positive decision-making” regarding rural and urban growth – to grant more planning applications – particularly with regard to housing.

“We didn’t find that quite to the extent that we expected,” he says.

“There was a change of attitude initially. But gradually they have fallen back into their old ways.

“We are seeing worse and worse decisions as we are going along.

“And it was disappointing that when we got to appeal they didn’t follow the Government’s lead.

“We would expect the planning inspectorate to toe the Government line.

“There are a lot of developments that should have been built that have not been.”

For Councillor Nolan, the whole system is flawed.

“I’m not sure that the appeal system does work well,” he says.

“Cornwall has a unique character and a delicate infrastructure – we cannot keep up with unlimited development, and an inspector who might be based in Swindon may apply judgements that work for Swindon, but not for St Ives.

“Essentially, inspectors are too remote, and not accountable for their decisions.”

Last month the council approved budget cuts of £196 million over the next four years. This, he says, only adds to the problem.

“Budget cutbacks are already causing problems,” he adds.

“Officers have a heavy caseload, and ironically it’s the developers that are complaining that it’s taking too long to process applications.”

He says that Mr Dodge’s comments would “ring hollow” with residents of Launceston, Gwinear, Goonhavern, Truro, Probus and many other communities who have fought, or are fighting what he calls “inappropriate developments driven by developers’ needs, rather than sensible planned growth”.

Neither Phil Mason, the council’s head of service for planning, housing and regeneration, nor Councillor Edwina Hannaford, Cabinet member for environment, heritage and planning, were available for comment.

Read more: http://www.westbriton.co.uk/Cornwall-Council-s-costs-rises-developers-win/story-25738782-detail/story.html#ixzz3NZgKfiD2
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Is localism preventing the development of new homes?

Copied from housing network website article by Hannah Fearn
Friday 1 August 2014 10.33 BST

They are both government priorities, but involving communities in planning decisions appears incompatible with housebuilding

Redbridge Council has taken planning decisions out of the hands of elected councillors.

It was the big idea of the coalition government, a cornerstone of localism, a foolproof way of getting things done without scaring off the traditionalists in the Conservative heartland. But after just three years, is neighbourhood planning already dead?

There are few signs of life left in the policy. Nick Boles sounded the first notes of funeral dirge when he admitted that the scheme, which involves local people designing and signing off new housing schemes, was too complex to function. He found that multiple objections from local people actually holds up the development process (who’d have thought it?). Instead he called on councils to who had already given up and come up with a better idea to share their it with other authorities.

The Financial Times reported this week that Kate Barker, who conducted a review of housebuilding for the Labour government in 2004, does not blame government policy for the slow rate of development in recent years. Instead, she says, it’s partly the result of nimbyism.

The turning of the tide against localism in planning goes even further: now even councillors can’t be trusted to make the right decisions. In Redbridge, the council has ruled that all future decisions on planning applications will be made by staff in the planning department because they have the skills and training to ensure they are qualified to make the right decisions; elected members simply do not. Redbridge also claims the move will save £45,000 a year.

Council leader Jas Athwal told his local newspaper that councillors added nothing to the planning process. “These planning officers have a huge amount of education and it seems egotistic that councillors can overrule them,” he said.

Meanwhile, central government is meddling again: it’s offering a slice of a £3m funding pot to councils with the largest number of planning applications for new homes in the pipeline, to speed things up and get those homes built. It’s a reward, but it’s also another opportunity to bypass the planning process that this government put in place.

This is not the first example of government finding new ways to get out of its own promises. Plans to create a new generation of garden cities mean the establishment of development corporations or sub-regional planning bodies which will be tasked with getting these new settlements built; there will be little room for debate once the decision to create a new town has been agreed upon.

In fact, writing for Planning magazine, former Whitehall advisor and planning consultant Ben Kochan says that the best way to win approval for a new garden city is to involve a whole host of organisations which are about as far removed from the neighbourhood planning process as you can get – not just urban development corporations, but also local enterprise partnerships, which give the business community funding and powers to boost economic growth.

It’s somewhat inevitable that in focusing on the end result – seeing more homes built in areas where there is an urgent need – will mean taking difficult decisions that not everyone in the community welcomes. Removing these decisions from the responsibility of local councillors (or simply by circumventing the planning process) will either be seen as a wise attempt to force progress or a cynical attempt to avoid blame for unpopular developments.

Whether you’re in favour of neighbourhood planning or not, it is being quietly removed from the pre-development process in the run-up to the 2015 election. This might be a good thing for housing in terms of numbers, but it’s also a blow to the heart of democratic localism.

Personally, I don’t agree with Redbridge, if they have indeed completely killed of their committee, as officers don’t always give the right weight to the concerns of non-planning experts. Local people are ‘experts’ when it comes to local concerns and local knowledge and you ignore this at your peril.

I do however agree that the system is becoming too vague, the government’s approach far too developer friendly and the overall process too open to abuse by vested interests, to remain as it is.
Telling councillors that they can still make the decisions, even if they’ve campaigned against it. Also suggesting that being pre-disposed to an opinion, is not the same as pre-determination, is complete nonsense and falls apart as defence, as soon as the high court gets involved.

At least it gives us old duffers something to do

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online
Time to rethink attitudes to councillors
19 June, 2014 | By Nick Golding

The case for localism is undermined if council chambers fail to reflect the diversity of the communities they represent. It is therefore worrying that the LGA councillor census shows councillors are becoming ever older while women and minority ethnic groups are still hugely under-represented.

Life as a councillor simply doesn’t have the appeal it once had. Local government has been starved of power and, above all, status. The holders of the role have been abused as snout-in-trough allowance chompers. And they have been demeaned by ministers, who put them on a par with volunteer scout leaders (who don’t control multi-million pound budgets or have responsibility for the welfare of vulnerable people).

Little wonder then that people are shunning local candidacy. Why try to make a difference when – shorn of money due to local budgets being cut more than central ones – your role amounts to little more than a figurehead for the decline of local public services? You hardly feel like Joseph Chamberlain.

Why work hard in your job all day and then return to work in the evening, especially when you’re not being paid? You’re now losing your ability to claim a local government pension; your travel expenses have been cut back. Councillors take little or no financial award from long hours, many of them antisocial, with onerous responsibilities. Ironically, they’re often criticised for personal claiming allowances by people with far better paid roles.

For these reasons, it is often only the retired who have the time and the financial platform to devote to local politics. The LGA National Census of Local Authority Councillors 2013 shows their average age exceeds 60 for the first time. The benefits experience brings to a council chamber should not be denigrated but to have a local body politic on average more than 20 years older than the general population means youth is under-represented. Councillors, remember, are responsible for children’s services, youth provision and sexual health facilities – a decent proportion of them need recent first-hand experience of these.

There are huge barriers for mothers contemplating becoming councillors. Few can afford not to work so that leaves them attempting to balance work, motherhood and local politics. Understandably, it’s the politics that often gives. One may speculate how more generous allowances could redress this balance and, for instance, pay dividends in better use of children’s services expenditure, which would no longer largely be determined by relatively elderly men.

It’s time to launch a fightback. Either councillors get proper allowances that reflect the long hours or local democracy remains the preserve of an aged elite. There is much that can be done by councils themselves – moving meetings to evenings to ensure those with jobs can attend, for instance. Many are bringing back the committee system in the hope of revitalising debates and potentially giving more councillors important roles. However, there is an onus on the whole of society to rethink its attitude to those performing civic duty – respect, not abuse, should be the norm.

I think most councillors would seek a simple acknowledgement for making the effort , not even respect, that’s probably too much to expect today’s, ‘I have my rights’ society.
If somebody was to ask me about becoming a councillor nowadays, I’m not sure what I would tell them were the benefits of doing so and I don’t mean to the councillor. Government funding cuts and more and more centralisation of power, hidden behind the facade of Localism, means that getting elected is more likely to become a exercise in frustration and disappointment, than a fulfilling experience in serving the community.

Perhaps planning is now too important to be left to councillors?

Copied from local Government Chronicle online
Fenland urged to end planning ‘perception of undue influence’
22 May, 2014 | By Mark Smulian

A district is to overhaul its planning service after being told it needs to end perceptions of bias by councillors.

Fenland DC’s new leader John Clark (Con) said the service would be revamped following a peer review report’s recommendations.

The district is a rapidly growing area with 11,000 new homes due by 2034, but has struggled to handle planning applications.

This included a controversy in 2012 when then leader Alan Melton (Con) sacked the entire planning committee after it rejected officers’ advice and gave both Tesco and Sainsbury’s planning permission for stores on adjacent sites.

All committee members have since had to undertake training from the government’s Planning Advisory Service.

The peer review, which was undertaken by the Planning Advisory Service and the LGA was published last week.

It said: “We were told by a number of [stakeholders] that there existed a perception of undue influence over application decision making.

“A phrase that captures the concerns of some is that on at least some occasions some councillors acted as the planning agent’s spokesman.”

No evidence of corruption was offered but “even the perception of inappropriate influence undermines the objectivity and integrity of the planning decision making process”.

Separation of the “political versus operational is important to councillors, managers, staff and users and stakeholders of the planning service”, they noted. The report said the high number of successful appeals against Fenland was “an indicator of some weak decision making at planning committee”.

Reviewers were startled to find that monthly planning committee meetings took up to seven hours to deal with an average of 12 applications, including “a tea break while the public look on”. They recommended smaller applications should be handled by officers.

Cllr Clark said: “We know there are areas we need to improve. We are pleased that they have recognised some of the good work we have done and are now looking to put their recommendations into practice as speedily as possible.”

Local government – something we used to have in the UK?

I am sure we would all agree with Cllr Sir Merrick Cockell, LGA Chairman, when he said last week:

“While this Budget has not brought further cuts for local government, it has not changed the fact that the next two years will be the toughest yet for people who use and rely upon the services which councils provide. The black hole in funding for local bus services, a £10.5 billion backlog in road repairs and continuing uncertainty over funding for much-needed reforms of the adult social care system have yet to be properly addressed.”

By next year, central government funding for councils will have been cut by 40 per cent during this Parliament.
If we are to avoid an upturn in the economy coinciding with a decline in public services, we need nothing less than a fundamental reform of the way the public sector works and an honest reappraisal of how public services are provided and paid for in post-austerity Britain.
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Add to all of this, the recent announcement that the government is looking at centralising children services in England, combined with the push for academy schools, both services currently delivered by county councils, and you could be forgiven for thinking that there’s a hidden ‘European’ agenda in play here.
The last labour government made an abortive attempt to up the game of parish councils, encouraging them to takeover the delivery of services that were being carried by district councils. As well as leading to the demise of two tier government in shire areas, the idea seemed to be about refocusing local people on to the parochial (very local) and away from greater than local issues, thereby strengthening the position of the then emerging regional government bodies.
The current government seems to be hell bent on a similar goal of undermining, or even eliminating local government at the district level and possibly county level, but without anything being put in place between the very local (parish) and national levels.
One can only suggest that the way things are done in many European countries, with village and town councils run by some form of mayor and looking after the basics, a regional government body at the next level and everything else controlled by the national government, is what all our MPs want, no matter what party they represent.

Localism was always a con game

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Localism was nothing more than a sound bite, created for the benefit of the media. It was also designed to con an increasingly unhappy and non-voting public, in to thinking that things were going to change for the better, when it came to local decision making.

There can be little doubt that the public have now realised that they’ve been conned, but worryingly, they don’t actually seem to care that much. Using local elections, as a way of sending a message to the government of the day, is something of a tradition in this country and may well indicate the true feelings of the majority of people when it come to local government in general and their local councils in particular.

Perhaps it’s time for political parties to bow out of any further involvement in local government. Why not require all councils to run elections without any party political logos or emblems on the ballot papers, as in the case of parish councils?

Once elected, councillors would be required to form alliances in order to form an administration. Without party politics in the mix, the public would be required to focus on the performance of the people in charge and not the political party they belong to. This isn’t a plea for proportional representation by the way, as I don’t support that, given it’s continued linkage with Party based politics.

Those who chose to form alliances and work together,min order to get each other elected and subsequently form an administration, would still be elected on their own merit and the reputation they had gained with the local electorate, not just the fact that they belonged to a particular political party, that a particular element of the electorate supports come what may. It may be something of an exaggeration, but it is suggested that some dyed in the wool voters, would vote for a gate post as long as it had their Party’s emblem on it!

An added bonus from such a system, would be the dismantling of the political party associations. These tend to be made up of those who have to be in them by default, because they are standing for election under that particular party emblem. This requirement gives some prospective parliamentary candidates a standing workforce (in theory at least), that other, non-party political candidates, don’t enjoy. Breaking the link between MPs and local government, would probably be good for the democratic process in more way than we can imagine!

Now to the point of this post and an LGC comment that partially echoes a previous posting of mine.

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online

Why Labour should not support council tax referendums
Don’t sacrifice localism on the altar of spending restraint
20 March 2014 | By Nick Golding

So who doesn’t expect Ukip to be the big winner of the local government elections, which are being held on the same day as their European counterparts?

One of the main reasons that a party set up to oppose the European Union will win seats on numerous councils is that the electorate is indifferent to voting for candidates representing regular parties who may have local policies but lack the ability to implement them.

Central government imposes cuts on councils without regard to local need and councillors have seen their powers over issues such as planning and education whittled away to the point of impotence. With representative democracy looking this unhealthy, one can understand someone’s rationale for using the local elections to make a bold statement about an issue largely unrelated to local politics or indeed not voting at all.

So the question arises of how local democracy can be reinvigorated. It is clearly an issue shadow communities secretary Hilary Benn has given much contemplation.

In his LGC interview this week, Mr Benn proposes the extension of city deals to counties, ensuring power is devolved in more places, making it more worthwhile to vote in them. The same is true of his promise that councils will get a significant role in commissioning back-to-work schemes.

However, Mr Benn says Labour is likely to retain council tax referendums, forcing locally elected politicians to navigate a prohibitively expensive and risky hurdle if they seek to safeguard services by raising bills above an arbitrary limit imposed from afar by a minister. To date no council has successfully pursued this path.

Mr Benn says the impetus to keep bills low brought about by the referendum policy will help people suffering due to the “cost of living crisis”. While it is true that council tax bills cost people dear, so too do service cuts that have had their worst impact on society’s most vulnerable. And so do opportunities to drive growth that are missed because councils lack the resources to lead on projects to create jobs.

Eric Pickles regards the council tax referendum as a device to secure democracy. Well, if that is true, will the government commit to holding polls every time a decision is required on the expenditure it controls? More likely, ministers will argue their government is the democratic representative of the people, entrusted to make tough decisions on their behalf. The same argument applies to local government.

Councillors should take decisions on local public expenditure, facing grief at the ballot box if they prove unpopular. Referendums only muddy the waters of local democracy, introducing a semblance of people power which hinders representative democracy. The fact that they are only applicable to a minute portion of public expenditure – one of the few slithers of spending not centrally controlled – makes them a democratic illusion.

The council tax referendum is a bellwether issue when it comes to local democracy. In this case Labour has sacrificed localism on the altar of spending restraint.

Nick Golding, editor, LGC

Minimum room size standards – if you can afford it.

This extract from the DCLG press release, really gives me the willies, as my old dad used to say. I don’t have a problem with making sure homes work for older people – as I will be one, sooner than I wish to admit – and disabled people, so they should be. What I don’t like and what makes me both suspicious and, as usual, extremely cynical, is the bit in bold. How can one local authority have different room size needs, compared to another? Are there any secret pockets of pygmies or giants DCLG know about and we don’t?

Or is this DCLG speaking out of both sides of their collective mouths? They give you an opportunity to make an improvement in your policies, but only if you are willing to invest in proving that it is justified for your particular area? This is of course standard practice in Local Plan preparation. Producing the evidence required to justify NOT providing enough housing land, being the most obvious one. Gypsy and Traveller sites, leisure, public open space requirements and road infrastructure, are all evidence based requirements that are totally appropriate, as somebody has to pay for them and they should not be required just for the sake of it – but room sizes, really?

This statement is clearly designed to con people into thinking that DCLG are, to quote Eric Pickles, “on the side of hard working taxpayers”, whilst at the same time discouraging cash strapped councils from actually doing the evidence gathering required. If DCLG were genuine in their wish to see our rabbits hutch homes consigned to history, they would simple produce a national standard to be applied in the same as the building regulations are. Score another one for the vested interests of the planning industry me thinks.

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) said the administration was inviting views on “minimum space and access standards that would allow councils to seek bigger homes to meet local needs, including those of older and disabled people”.