More houses in your district?
Nick Webb is a Conservative activist in the Bristol area and was formerly the Conservative Future Chairman for Bristol and Gloucestershire. His work brings him into regular contact on planning matters with developers, councillors and the public. He says councillors need to give a stronger lead.
When planning hits a problem, you need a new plan. Regional Spatial Strategies, the documents that state how many houses must be built in each local authority area have brought to the fore a major problem with planning matters in England. The spatial strategies are decided at a regional level. They are then approved or amended by central Government. Local Councils are involved and can feed into the proposals, but in truth they are very limited in their influence. This lack of influence from a council level is creating a dynamic that threatens to stifle planning proposals and to induce a malaise among voters, who feel their elected officials are either ignoring them or are impotent in the face of non-directly elected officials in Whitehall or the regions.
The Regional Spatial Strategy is not in essence a bad idea. In 1991 the population of England was 48,067,300, ten years later it was 49,652,000 and as of 2007 is estimated at 51,092,000. It is also worth noting that the average number of people per household in England and Wales was 2.36 in 2001, down from 2.51 in 1991 and 1,500,000 were deemed to be living in an overcrowded household. These statistics demonstrate there is a need to build more houses, and as a result more infrastructure and community facilities. There is logic behind a regional strategic approach, after all some authorities are barely distinct from one another to anyone without a map of the boundaries. Businesses don't think too hard about whether they are based in South Gloucestershire or Bristol, as far as they are concerned they are on the edge of a major city with good motorway and mainline rail links. Residents probably think about boundaries even less. As a result it seems to make some sense planning the number of houses required at a regional level.
In the opening paragraph I mentioned that this created a dynamic. Let me explain what I mean. If at the regional level a proposal is submitted that an authority should enable the development of x number of houses and the majority of residents are opposed to it, how would you expect the councillors to react? Many will simply do all they can to state their firm opposition to the housing numbers. Residents of existing homes normally shout louder than those in need of a new home, the councillors hear their voices and they react. They want to be re-elected and they were elected in the first place to represent the views of their residents. So, Councillors oppose the housing numbers and do so loudly so their constituents know their views. Some politicians, and Grant Shapps MP is an excellent example, are very careful to state their opposition to the specific number, but also agree a lower number do need to be built. It is, though, all too easy for a councillor to make the subtle move from opposing a specific number of housing to opposing development. The latter position is neither tenable nor wise.
With the councillors taking
a position of strong opposition what then do the people see? The councillors
views ignored, decisions made by people they've never voted for, indeed
in some cases people no-one has ever voted for. The electorate feels
disengaged from the process. Consultation exercises take place, and
they are important, but there is also a need for a direct line of accountability.
Councillors are elected to run the authority, stating the obvious I
realise, but at the moment their powers are nowhere near strong enough
to do that job effectively. This principle does not just apply to housing
numbers. Following the collapse of a proposal to build the Dyson Academy
in Bath, Bath and North East Somerset Council released a statement saying they had supported the scheme
and had wanted to pursue it, but that the Environment Agency had blocked
it on the basis of a flood risk assessment. If there was a risk of flooding
then that is, of course, very serious, but I still believe such information
should be advice and guidance before the Council come to their own decision
on whether to proceed. Tellingly the council listed all the bodies that
had been involved in the decision making process for the planning application:
No. 10 Office; Department for Communities and Local Government; Planning
Inspectorate; Department for Children, Schools, and Families; Learning
and Skills Council; Department for Culture, Media, and Sport; English
Heritage; Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs; Environment
Agency; South West Regional Assembly; Government Office South West;
and Bath and North East Somerset Council. It is quite right that many
experts and stakeholders should be consulted, but the decision to say
yes or no needs to be made by the council, the only group in that list
directly accountable to the residents of the authority area.
At the Urban Hub "An Estate of Mind" conference fringe event, Grant Shapps, in his role of Shadow Housing Minister, commented that by taking away the ability of regional bodies to dictate housing numbers and putting more planning power in the hands of local authorities, more councillors would stand on a platform that was pro-development. This would mark a major change in the dynamic of the planning decision. No sensible authority can simply be anti-development, but they can be anti-bad development and pro-good development. To oppose all development would lead to unsustainable house price increases and a failure of economic competitiveness, neither are attractive prospects for a council. To an extent free market economics would play its part in whether development did or did not take place, but with good fore-sight and intelligent governance this can be accelerated for the benefit of the area. I'm of the view that residents want to see leadership from those they elect, at the moment too many councillors are enabled by an unaccountable system to play the nimby card. That does not lead to rational judgements about whether a planning application is good for any area and is not a model for good local governance.