Green councillors' motion to end ‘development by stealth’ passed by Brighton & Hove City Council

Green councillors are supporting calls by residents worried about government changes to the planning system which cuts out local democracy from the process.

In a motion passed by Brighton & Hove City Council yesterday Thursday 8 May, Greens argued that the government should “respect our communities and local democratic decision-making on planning matters”.

This follows growing anxiety among residents’ groups that the council is forced into granting permission for some developments – as the applicant will win on appeal.

Green Councillor Phélim Mac Cafferty, Chair of Planning Committee, and proposer of the motion said,

“The cornerstone of the planning system has been that decisions are taken locally by councillors accountable to local people, and with the input of residents.

“However the Tories’ deregulation of planning means that residents are being cut out of the process, protections for the environment are being reduced and we’re getting development by stealth.

“The Government’s insistence that every piece of land should be up for grabs is a cause for huge concern for us as councillors as much as it is for our communities.

“In our motion to full council we set out how share our communities’ concerns.

“We are opposed to the increased powers that developers and large land owners gain through the government’s National Planning Policy Framework.

“We are calling on Eric Pickles and Nick Boles to insist that they hand planning controls back to the city’s communities served by them and the city’s environment protected by them.

“I urge the other parties to support residents’ calls to end this free for all.”

The motion is purely declaratory.

Notice of Motion – passed 8 May 2014

 *The government’s National Planning Policy Framework was widely condemned as a so-called ‘developer’s charter’, with its presumption in favour of development.

This weights the system in favour of developers, and if applications are refused they are more likely to be given approval on appeal.

More developments are being given automatic approval – particularly conversion from office or other employment spaces into residential homes.

*The text of the motion is as follows:

“This Council resolves:

To request the Chief Executive to write to:

(1) The Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government, Eric Pickles and Planning Minister, Nick Boles;

(i) Insisting they respect our communities and local democratic decision-making on planning matters;

(ii) Expressing our deep-seated concerns with the legal changes and the proven impact on Brighton and Hove including how communities are being locked out of planning decisions;

(iii) To insist government amend the National Planning Policy Framework by removing the presumption in favour of so-called ‘sustainable development’ at all costs;

(iv) Give our communities and elected Councillors the power to prioritise our City Plan and our own planning policies; and

(2) The city’s MPs calling on them to join with us in lobbying ministers to hand back planning to the city’s communities served by it and the city’s environment protected by it. “

Councillor Phelim Mac Cafferty’s speech

As the biggest, and I would argue, the most damaging changes to the planning system in the National Planning Policy Framework and the market deregulation of the planning system, our communities are telling us that their voice is being flouted, so we really must pause and critique the actions and indeed the motivations of the government.

For example we have prior approvals which means you can go on holiday and come back to your neighbour having built a huge extension. For us as decision makers accountable through the ballot box to the people, such chaos represents the democratic deficit at the heart of the government’s damaging planning changes. As we are discovering with a prior approval in the Roundhill area of the city the fact that the council can only consider three aspects to a potential refusal for a prior approval- viz Transport and highways impact; Contamination Risks on site; and Flooding Risks; it is insulting to democratic decision making.

But I would argue that such chaos fits the neoliberal, laissez-faire economic model of the Coalition Government. Government can carry on with more damaging decisions because no one can keep up with the permanent changes. It would be one thing if prior approvals were the only change. In what has been a policy revolution where landowners and unscrupulous developers are king, prior approvals represent only one tiny facet.

We’ve had a policy bonfire with 1000 pages of policy burnt to make way for 54. Less doesn’t mean better. We have had the removal of the requirement to apply for planning permission in order to change a development from commercial to residential use, where the Government risks creating unsustainable dormitory towns. We have had 4 sets of changes to the General Permitted Development Order, more centralisation of planning powers with the Chancellor, while less than half of all councils in the country have an adopted plan because the hurdles that are in place are simply too high.

The abandonment of regional planning by the Coalition Government with a ‘duty to cooperate’ means we have contradictory. But, I suppose, anything that would get in the way of the market-driven deregulation of the planning system is now up for question. That was reaffirmed only weeks ago in the Budget- we have the promise of yet further reviews of the General Permitted Development Order.

The chaos in the planning system was epitomised in March when the planning minister Nick Boles wrote to the Planning Inspectorate to say he was “disturbed” by an inspector’s report ratifying Reigate and Banstead Borough Council’s plans to release green belt for up to 1,400 homes. Boles was attempting to distance the government from unpopular decisions that were affecting a Tory-run council.

Boles’s intervention provoked a letter from the Home Builders Federation warning that his message could have a “potentially disastrous effect” on meeting the nation’s housing crisis. Boles was then forced to respond with a second letter clarifying that his first letter “did not signal a change of policy or approach”. When Nick Boles famously said “chaos is a good thing” in planning, he probably didn’t have this kind of chaos in mind.

Because a government inspector has told us to look again for more housing and because of the primacy of the NPPF, there has been a 46% increase in the appeals lodged against planning application decisions. So if we don’t get a city plan agreed by the Inspector, I have a genuine worry about what will happen to the city. There were several lobbyists who appeared at our city plan examination in public last year including the Home Builders’ Federation who are back again and inquiring about land in the city. I fear that without an adopted city plan we can face unscrupulous developers who can cite the NPPF and get away with damaging our open space, our city scape and, as a city with the second largest number of listed buildings in the country, our historic built environment.

And in a dangerous precedent, the NPPF in practice means that the viability concerns of developers now come before and above environmental and social concerns.It is developers, and not local communities, who have been put at the heart of the Government’s reforms of the planning system. Councils are explicitly told by the NPPF that they should “grant permission where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date” (Para 14). So before permanent damage is done to our precious open space and the built environment in the city, our motion today insists that Mr Pickles and Mr Boles remove the presumption in favour of so-called ‘sustainable development’.

Policies voted on at different meetings of the council by us councillors are not being given their due weight by the government inspector who instead is relying on the presumption in favour of sustainable development enshrined in the NPPF. Let us be clear: that means that there are fewer decisions being made on the basis of what we as councillors vote for and more decisions being made on what the government wants. So much for handing back power to local communities and Localism. Instead of delivering sustainable development and empowering local people, it is a developer’s charter that will force the approval of virtually all proposals, whether or not local people, or local decision makers want them. Today we say give back power to our communities and elected councillors to decide our own policies and our own priorities.

The war on taking powers away from elected councillors hasn’t stopped there. Despite the advice of the Environment Audit Committee to the CLG that they should not water down sustainability policies, Tory thinking on the subject was that the CFSH was constraining business and needed further deregulation.

Preparing for the City Plan’s Examination in Public, we produced a joint study with Bath, Swindon and Wiltshire Councils on the reduction in costs to build to CFSH 5 and 6. Falls of c 40% in cost for level 6 and up to 55% for level 5. So again work that we have done at a local level to support the fledgling eco-homes industry in a city with strong eco-building practices, this is possibly the worst message to a local fledgling movement.

A few weeks ago Nick Boles, in a letter to PINS, wrote: “…local authorities, and the communities who elect them, are in charge of planning for their own areas.” Which sounds about right. However, it’s all a con. Because when you peel back what Boles has said we are not allowed to exert control over what we could understand to be potentially harmful development because the presumption in favour of development in the NPPF, the deregulation of the planning system to woo developers and big landowners overrides all. What Pickles and Boles really mean is that we as councillors are assumed to be the apostles of unsustainable development espoused in the NPPF. And as such are required to genuflect in front of deepened government centralisation. So this is what ‘localism’ really looks like…

We say the long term public interests of planning to protect the environment will be sacrificed for short-sighted and short-term economic growth. So more than ever before we need to hand back planning to the city’s communities served by it and the city’s environment protected by it.


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