Saturday, 25 September 2010

People before profit - a critique of the planning system

This was Cllr Carrie Harper's speech to today's Sustainable Communities conference in Glyndwr University today. It's an excellent critique of the planning system and seeks to address the unfair advantage developers have over community campaigners.

Planning affects everyone. The idea of planning at whatever level is to address the different needs of our communities in a way that protects what we value and makes provision for what we may need in the future. It should always attempt to balance competing needs for development such as housing and employment with the need to protect our environment and also maintain a sense of place and identity within our communities. In order to be sustainable, our planning system in Wales must also take into account the needs of our language, identity and culture which are all vital parts of our social fabric. As local people, those are the things that we value.

You may have noticed that a word I have used several times in describing what planning is for, is need. That is the crucial element which should be the foundation for planning whether at a national, regional or local level. It's important to remember that what the planning system provides, or doesn't provide, affects every aspect of daily life, whether that's your health, life opportunities, equality or even culture. It is the most crucial element in local government.

In reality, the whole planning system is not focussed on local needs, it's not focussed on sustainability but, in fact, the system is used as a means of justification of ever increasing unsustainable development that is based on national strategies, which are economically driven.

Very often, the economic benefits of developments are not felt by the local communities that are affected by them. For example, a commuter estate that's tagged onto a village, which very often as we've seen in many of the villages around Wrecsam and like is planned in Bodelwyddan can double or even triple the size of a village. There is no way that that kind of development brings economic benefit to those local communities. In fact the only economic benefits are to the developers and their associated consultants.

I think it's quite clear in the case of the sub-regional strategy that the plan is not based on local need. In fact it has been specified in various documents, that it is to relieve the housing pressure on Cheshire and to provide land supply for the expansion of the Liverpool City region.

What planners will say, if you read the literature from planning departments, is that we have policies in place to protect identity and language, to protect communities and so on, and that the focus of the system is on local aspirations and protecting local assets.

But what happens in reality, and you can see the results of this all around us, is that there is a fundamental contradiction in policy. On the one hand, local planning guidance within local authorities, is geared towards ensuring development is not detrimental to communities. We have policies in place in Wrecsam for instance stating that development must not be detrimental to the Welsh language or to Welsh identity.

But national guidance insists that local authorities implement housing targets, such as the population projections issued by the Welsh Assembly, these projections use figures that are 50% based on past in-migration trends and therefore are in no way related to local need whatsoever. The use of these figures creates a system that has actually generated an additional housing market. In areas that have seen a housing boom for instance, the housing levels are projected forward into future local development plans, creating a vicious cycle of unnaturally high levels of development and population growth.

In North East Wales we have seen huge levels of housing development. In Wrecsam for instance, since 1996 approximately 10,000 houses have either been built or given planning permission, a very tiny proportion of these -about 1% - have actually been affordable for local people. As a direct result of this development, the in-migration rate into Wrecsam between 2001 and 2008 was 3.5 times the Welsh average and house prices rose a staggering 60% in just 4 years.

Clearly you can't say that this is based on local need. House prices have gone through the roof, it's put major pressure on all our services such as schools, doctors, dentists, roads and at the same time the majority of local people still can't afford a house.

So how, if we have these local policies that are here to protect our local environment, heritage and the local interest, do things like the sub-regional strategy and the use of these population projection figures get implemented and override the local policies?

What we see happening is that officers have the say, it's how they interpret the policies that makes the difference. It's very often the officers' focus that is on the likes of the sub-regional strategy rather than the local picture.

For example, when forming the local development plan here in Wrecsam, I proposed 100% affordable housing, because that is the only identified need we have in the borough. That proposal was laughed at. So then we proposed having a policy of 50% of all housing allocations being affordable. Although accepted initially politically, within a couple of weeks the officers had produced a consultants report detailing why 50% affordable housing was not viable. The reason why it wasn't viable was because of developers "usual profit margins". So this really puts in context the phrase of "profits before people" and really shows clearly that their focus isn't on what is needed locally but rather on the needs of the development companies.

Another example, is a controversial National Trust development just down the road here in Rhostyllen for 223 houses. There was a policy in Wrecsam's local development plan at the time, which stated that Rhostyllen should not have development of more than 160 houses. It also went on to explain why - because the amenities in the village could not cope with any more than this. This policy was already part of a local plan that spanned a 15-year period, so before this application even came to the planning committee, there had already been at least a further 100 houses built in this village. Needless to say that not only did this application get permission, but several others after it did as well.

In looking at situations like this, which are a common experience, if a planning department claims that their focus is on local needs, why is this type of thing consistently happening in Brymbo, Gwersyllt, Ruabon, Bodelwydden, Llangollen, it's common place.

If we're going to genuinely have sustainable development - which of course is needed in Wales because of the delicate, fragile situation that our identity and language- we need better quality planning personnel and systems. For example, planning officers need to be refocussed and given a clear role. That role should not be to override the political steer, or should it be on anything other than local needs and aspirations. In order to make this happen, what is also needed is much more scrutiny and accountability of these officers to the public. Of course, it's stated that the planning process is a democratic one and that public opinion is taken into account. In my experience this is just simply not true. We all know how deficient any official consultations are and I think the lack of consultation on the sub-regional strategy absolutely illustrates this point, even by the Ministers admission only 100 stakeholders actually contributed to that process.

I think what would also be helpful would be to re-affirm in an official and strong way that planning officers work for the local community and that the planning system within the Welsh Assembly is working for the people of Wales.

For instance, I don't think it's appropriate that planning officers have unsupervised meetings with developers and generally in the planning process, much more weight should be put on local opinion. Possibly the most important point is that there should be an accessible right of community appeal against decisions, as currently once a decision is made in favour of an application, it is almost impossible to challenge. On the other hand, if an application is refused the developer instantly has the right to appeal.

Generally, the planning process and system should not be used as an enabler, rather it should be used as a filter to ensure that only sustainable and appropriate developments take place that address the needs of the local community.

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