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August 11, 2020

Free rein for developers

As the gloves come off in England’s planning debate, and any semblance that planning decisions should be democratically accountable is jettisoned on the basis that proposed centralising reforms will resolve the housing crisis, we can be sure that the volume house builders in Scotland will not waste any time in pressing Ministers for similar measures. Planning rules have already been relaxed in favour of developers in response to Covid and no doubt the developer lobbyists will argue for further concessions to assist in the recovery. Clare Symonds at Planning Democracy lays out the counter-argument.

Clare Symonds

Most people don’t believe that they know much about planning, but if you give them a moment they quickly realise how important the effects it has on their lives.

Councils like Glasgow will now be looking at how, in a post-Covid world, they can take the opportunity to build better, healthier, fairer, greener cities. How they approach this will have a huge impact on the citizens and their health and well-being, not least the mental health and well being of those impacted by development. The effect of that development being dependent on many factors including the way that people are involved in the process of decision making.

If we asked Glasgow’s/Scotland’s citizens what kind of a model of planning do we want, one led by care for people and place or one that is led by the profit driven hand of an unfettered free market, it is likely that most would opt for the former. Indeed, most planners probably entered their profession with the former in mind. Likewise, it is likely that most people would opt for a collaborative rather than adversarial system of planning.

In theory in Scotland there are three core sets of interests in planning; planning authorities, developers and the public. This view is underpinned by the Aarhus Convention (to which the UK is signed up) which makes it clear that people have rights to a say in decisions that affect their lives. But this principle poses difficulties alongside our market drive planning system, which rather than regulate development is more readily seen as a facilitator of development. The predominantly market-led system of development equates public interest with development, ie any development is seen as a positive if it creates growth and contributes to the economy. This leaves little space for meaningful community engagement and is by its very nature divisive, casting anyone who objects to a development as a problem.

There is a common perception of people who respond to planning applications are a nuisance, so much so that they have their own specific negative label of NIMBY’s. And yet if you take a different more neutral view of development, one where development is only perceived to be a good thing if it contributes to the health and well being of society then the role of ‘objector’ is cast in a different light and perceptions can change. The objector is more akin to a positive role model of someone carrying out their civic duty in order to protect the public good rather than a nuisance.

It is not only communities who feel that they are cast in a negative light. Many planners too have expressed feeling undervalued, unappreciated and ground down by the market driven system where they operate in a culture of austerity and lack resources and time. This is a system where the developer is seen to be the chief customer and planners are expected to facilitate rather than regulate their actions. It all suggests a rather dysfunctional planning system, where it is increasingly awkward for anyone whether community or professional to be critical of development, whether or not that development is in keeping with policy or plans, is bad for the environment or simply poor quality design.

This same system also allows developers to put in repeat applications, a luxury that they make frequent use of, often doing so over a number of years, gradually grinding down any community appetite or ability to respond. Add to that the developers unique ability to appeal decisions and their deep pockets to challenge decisions that don’t go their way in the courts and it seems the system is entirely geared towards the profit driven hand of an unfettered free market rather than one led by care for people and place.

In this development friendly world planners are expected to be solutions focused, and are less able to behave impartially because of the increasing commercialisation of the planning process. Communities are expected to be pro development, ready to engage earlier and earlier in the system in order to ensure that they are ready to accept the inevitability of some form of development.

Meanwhile the system too often seems to discourage local elected councilors from engaging with their constituents, some interpreting the code of conduct requiring them to be impartial to mean not communicating at all with people who are opposed to a development for fear of being barred from voting on an application. This often leaves communities baffled and angry as to why their elected representatives are apparently not representing their views.

It is easy to see how detrimental a disagreement between those not wanting a development and those wanting to profit from a development can become, with planners placed rather awkwardly in the middle, unable to be totally impartial and too under resourced to actively and fully engage with the community. This conflict ridden system is likely exacerbated in cases where there is a history of a repeat application, stalled development or application being modified over long periods.

What happens then to those impacted by negative aspects of development and the development process? Who is currently listening to the voices of those concerned? Whose needs are being serviced in this current model of planning? The property development industry or the public?

Imagine this scenario

Supposing there is a situation where luxury flats are proposed on a greenspace by a developer wanting to make a handsome profit. The development comes at the expense of the community from the perspective of threatening local business, damaging wildlife areas and being out of keeping with the area. The community and many others are opposed and multiple objection letters are received, making valid arguments. The situation grinds on for years, with an imbalance of power dynamic allowing the developer to damage the site and its wildlife, intimidate local residents and have pretty much open access to planning officers allowing them to change the details of an application on multiple occasions. Meanwhile members of the public are not allowed to attend site visits or meetings where key decisions are made and are unable to monitor progress because of lack of resources and a planning portal that is not kept up to date!

This is not unheard of my any means, but is it an example of a planning system that cares for people and place? In whose power is it to change the system?

Changing the way our economy currently runs may be out with the gift of a local council, but can a local authority respond and change the way it deals with planning, perception of communities and how it looks after its planning department? Should local authorities be doing everything in their power to overcome some of the deepening inequalities of the market driven system? I would say the answer to both questions is an emphatic YES!

The current covid situation has led the Government to allow some relaxation of planning rules, many of these are once again in the favour of developers. Local authorities should be considering ways of enabling the public to engage in planning in the new restricted world we live in, for example, providing extended deadlines or enabling online attendance of planning committees. In the new normal the planning system has to start serving communities before property developers – it always should have!

If you have had experience of fighting for community benefit over property developers profits please comment below.