BLOG: Local planning decisions must not be handed over to an algorithm

If you have ever sat in on a local Planning Committee meeting you will know that they represent democracy red in tooth and claw. 

They are a great illustration of how local government should work. Planning officers will present their informed evidence and give a recommendation to the Committee; members are not whipped by their party so you usually have no idea how they will vote and, because residents care deeply about their local environment, they hold and share opinions very strongly indeed with committee members.

This means that these meetings actually matter and opinions can change during the course of a meeting in response to community lobbying. It’s far from the perfect system but the views of the people are, by and large, heard. 

So who could possibly object to well informed local experts giving their view to locally elected representatives who will be responsive to local opinion? 

Step forward The Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP,  Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, whose planning white paper severely limits the ability of local communities to influence planning decisions. In essence, the public will have one chance to give their views on new development and, ludicrously, this will be at the local plan stage when new developments are purely theoretical with no actual proposal from a developer to consider. By the time a genuine development comes forward, up to a decade later, there is no more opportunity for a local resident to influence the development of their environment.  

As with so much from this government, there is a command and control libertarian model that runs through this legislation  - a belief that Whitehall and the market knows best. And how will Whitehall work out what should be in a local plan? An algorithm of course. 

Yes, the people who knew better than teachers what your son or daughter’s A-Level result should be, know better than you what should be built at the end of your street. So when you are commenting on local plans do be aware that it must meet the following requirement: 

“Adjustment Factor = [(Local affordability factor t = 0 – 4/4) x 0.25) + (Local affordability ratio t = 0 – Local affordability ratio t = 10) x 0.25] +1 Where t = 0 is current year and t = -10 is 10 years back.

Unsurprisingly, as the leader of the council responsible for one of the most beautiful parts of the country, I object to this. Not because we are all NIMBYs - our administration was elected on a platform to build more social rented homes and we have over delivered on housing in recent years -  but because I believe that local people are better placed to plan the future of their communities than remote ministers and civil servants. 

Our reward for over delivery? According to planning lawyers Lichfield, the target for new homes in Cotswold District is set to go up from 420 a year to 1,209 a year. 

And here is why planning policy shouldn’t be dropped down on neighbourhoods from on high: because we are one of the most beautiful parts of the UK you can’t actually build in most of the district. About 80 per cent of my district is an area of outstanding natural beauty with limits on new development. Many of our towns, such as Cirencester, are already set to grow dramatically over the next few years so other sites will need to be found. Centuries-old small market towns such as Moreton-in--Marsh, Lechlade-upon-Thames and Fairford could double in size almost overnight. 

And we have to worry about the quality and long term impact of these new homes. We are revising our local plan to reflect our local priority of limiting the environmental impact of new homes. Anyone who thinks that a local ambition for zero energy new homes will last through Whitehall lobbying and a costly legal challenge from a national housebuilder, has no awareness of the contrast between the perilous state of council finances or the deep pockets of those developers. 

The legislation as proposed will lead to poorer housing, ignored communities and neutered local government. Surely Mr Jenrick never intended his title to be ironic?

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