The planning system offers virtually no room at all for local involvement. Even
where residents, local councillors and elected MPs are united in determined
opposition to a given plan, their wishes can be, and so often are, simply
brushed aside by remote and unaccountable planning bureaucrats. Like many
people, I have experienced this first hand.
When a retail site fell vacant on White Hart Lane in Barnes a couple of years
ago, Sainsbury’s snapped it up. Local people were enraged. The last thing they
wanted was a large new store undermining the local independents, bringing more
traffic into a residential area, with large delivery lorries rumbling up and
down the street. The Council was bombarded with letters of protest from
residents, and in response it rejected the application.
Astonishingly the decision was then overruled by the National Planning
Inspectorate in Bristol – over 100 miles away from Barnes.
I believe communities offer the best possible hedge against continued social
and environmental instability, and their protection should be a priority. That
requires among other things, a re-think of Planning– and a shift towards a much
more localized, democratic approach.
The Government appears to be taking action to help local people protect the character
of their area and empower councillors to stop inappropriate developments. The
Department for Communities and Local Government has removed gardens from the
definition of brownfield land in Planning Policy Statement 3, and has abolished
national ‘density targets’. Rules are also being changed so that local
Councillors can campaign on behalf of their constituents without fear of
breaking the rules of ‘pre-determination’ and losing their right to vote.
I am hoping that the Localism Bill will give local residents the opportunity to
decide what developments are appropriate for their area, but it is not yet
clear what the changes will mean on the ground. Will residents be able to stop
inappropriate developments? Will green spaces, and in particular the green
belt, be protected if residents want them protected? Will residents be able to
influence the design of new developments so that they are in keeping with
surrounding areas? I had hoped the answer would be ‘yes’ to all these
questions, but it remains unclear, and I have written a number of letters to
Ministers seeking clarity.