When it comes to the blame game over who is responsible for the housing crisis local politicians are often top of the list. “Pandering to locals” or “avoiding necessary decisions” are some of the common accusations.
The reality of course, is that in a localism world where the local electorate feels much more empowered, the politics of planning is hugely difficult. It is also the reality that when housing applications get recommended by Planning Officers for approval, they usually get granted. Councillors do a fantastic job, working long unsocial hours to help the communities they represent.
Nevertheless, it is clear that not everything is perfect in local politics and it is an area I am keen to cast light on. With this in mind many thanks must go to Greg Stone, a Lib Dem Councillor in Newcastle who agreed to give his personal perspective on some of the key planning issues facing local politicians involved in the planning process. In particular he addresses some of the key questions like:
a. do Councillors really look beyond the next election?
b. are they truly representative of all groups?
c. are they up to such an important role?
d. why do people become Councillors?
e. is planning regarded as important in local politics?
f. how can we change things for the better?
Greg’s views are presented in italics below:
“Undoubtedly a difficult issue for planning committee members is to have the courage to see beyond the next election. Housing proposals in particular, create potential difficulties because they often generate hundreds of objections. For a Councillor wishing to remain elected (in order to make a long term impact) this can be tricky. If more people get involved in promoting the benefits of new housing, this will undoubtedly make Councillors jobs easier.
Housing is generally not a problem for urban councillors where there is no greenfield land to build on. The issue is more for suburban or rural areas where the key concerns are always traffic and, to a lesser extent, perceived loss of views and open land. In the UK housing is closely attached to social status. Proposals which are perceived to adversely affect the existing value of homes or to bring in new/different types of people to an area do create alarm. Councillors respond to this.
It is clear that there is an issue in terms of the (rising) average age of Councillors. In urban areas there are more younger Councillors but in other areas the political dominance of the older, richer, white male is an issue. Most Councillors are acutely aware of the issue but, irrespective of age and status, Councillors are generally reluctant to vote for unpopular things – they sometimes play back community nervousness about change.
There are often three types of Councillors. Firstly the retired person looking to put something back. Secondly, “political types” who see local politics as a stepping stone, perhaps to a more senior local position or even a career in national politics. And finally, the driven individuals who are simply passionate about their area and have a huge appetite to secure positive changes there. Proportions of these vary from area to area. In urban areas the influence of party politics is obviously far greater.
Planning committee is never a “whipped” committee but it is inevitable that local party leaders will have influence. There are never formal or informal instructions. Similarly, politicians never exert influence over planning officers. That said it is only right and proper for any politician to make their views known, publicly or privately, on a proposal prior to determination. There will often be a pre-meeting between the Officers and the key members prior to an upcoming planning committee. This will help tease out issues and sensitivities.
Prior to Committee, members are instinctively nervous about talking to developers, even with the new rules enabling this. Whilst members undoubtedly feel that dialogue would be useful this is generally overridden by concerns about defending hostile accusations about having been “influenced” by the applicant.
At the committee itself, Members generally don’t seek to undermine Planning Officers. However, “close scrutiny” can often come across as hostility and there is sometimes an element of showboating.
Issues where members feel more emboldened to go against the Officer recommendation tend to be design, prematurity, traffic, tree loss, student housing and wind turbines. Areas where members may be less bold include proposals which are allocated in a plan, brownfield proposals, or where jobs are created or where there is clearly no 5-year land supply.
Councillors are much improving their understanding of viability issues. However, some still consider that once a site is allocated it should be capable of coming forward with the original affordable housing and eco-credentials intact. Most Members also place limited weight on the New Homes Bonus. In terms of improvements, 2 key things are recommended:
1. Set up “formal” pre-committee meetings with developer, officer and members to allow concerns to be aired.
2. Set up a small “working group” on key controversial applications comprising developer, ward member(s), community representative, planning officer and planning committee member.
Many thanks to Greg for his time, assistance and perspectives. As the quote goes “democracy is a crap system but it’s the best there is”.
As always, comments welcome.