Relaxation of planning laws: Conference call to listen to the expertise of local government
I made my debut at the Lib Dem conference on Wednesday to support the emergency motion calling for the withdrawal of the proposals to relax planning laws.
The arguments against the proposals are:
- Councils already have discretion to negotiate the affordable housing part of s106 agreements, and will take account of any viability arguments from developers. But removing the requirement altogether flies in the face of commitments from Government to address the housing shortage and undermines our negotiating position.
- What you can build without planning permission is already significant and can and does lead to falling out between neighbours who find it hard to understand why they have no powers of objection, and why the council has no powers to intervene despite the impact on their light and privacy.
- Seeking planning permission for larger extensions is not onerous or expensive. In Sutton it costs £150 and you can expect a decision within eight weeks. Local councillors see hundreds of extensions built and approved in this way each year. Therefore it is not the planning process that is holding back growth.
However the thrust of my speech was that if the Government had consulted with local councils before they floated these proposals, this cross-party rebellion against them would have been averted, because it was obvious to local councillors what the flaws in the plans were. And this is a perfect example of how the communication between central and local government is one way – top down only, despite the lofty commitments to Localism.
The full text of my speech is included below.
The motion against the relaxation of the planning laws was overwhelmingly supported by members, and I was interested to hear that extracts from my speech had featured on ‘Today at Conference’ on BBC2 to illustrate grassroot concerns about the relationship between local and central government.
However most importantly was the statement by Don Foster MP that he was listening.
CALL FOR WITHDRAWAL OF PROPOSALS FOR RELAXATION OF PLANNING REGULATIONS
This Government talks about Localism, whilst in Local Government we put it into practice. Localism means devolving power to those closest to the impacts of decisions. This is what we are trying to do in Local Government, but it is against a constant giving of powers with one hand, and taking away with the other. The communication between central and local government is one way – top down only. As a result we councillors have been forced to implement poorly thought out policies, make ruthless cuts, and defend regulations that can’t be defended. We know that ministers are lobbied by groups with vested interests, and they take on board these groups concerns, as they should. However there are always two sides to every story, and local councils are in a very good place to give the other side of the tale. Local councils should also get a hearing. Councillors are at the coalface of the changes Government want to implement. We are the ones charged with delivering change and implementing policy. It would be nice if Government consulted with local councils for once. We have a huge amount of experience and expertise. These planning proposals are the perfect example of why central Government needs to consult with us. We know that it is not the planning system that is holding back growth. For local councillors it was obvious what the flaws in this plan were. We already have to deal with residents shocked by what their neighbours can build without planning permission, that impacts significantly on their quality of life. Permitted development rights are already very broad and have loopholes that are frequently exploited. Expanding the size of developments that can be erected without the neighbours having any say in the matter was never going to go down well with residents already feeling disempowered. And how are we to protect and help our high streets when businesses can expand significantly without care for the consequences that may have on traffic and parking, or on other businesses and development in the area? Fortunately these are just proposals, out for consultation. They are not yet a law that Eric Pickles can slam our faces in. So we say listen to the expertise of local government: these proposals will not help drive economic growth. It is working with businesses and residents to deliver good quality development that works well for an area that will deliver the employment opportunities we desperately need. Planning applications will not meet obstacles in the planning process if they are proposing well designed buildings that enhance not harm an area. Local councils understand this, and are already working hard to deliver jobs and business opportunities in this way. Please listen to our experiences. I ask that Conference supports the motion.