Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Planning system reform ‘an attack on democracy’

Planning system reform ‘an attack on democracy’

THE Government’s proposed reform of the planning system has been criticised by housing experts in Henley.

They say the plans are undemocratic and take away the rights of communties to have a say on future housing.

A White Paper aims to streamline the planning process and accelerate the construction of new homes.

In 2017, the Government committed to delivering 300,000 new homes every year but so far it has failed to hit the target.

Under the proposed reforms, consultation could be restricted to when a planning authority, such as South Oxfordshire District Council, formulates its local plan.

This would mean residents could no longer comment on individual planning applications.

Neighbourhood plans, which were introduced to give residents a greater say on housing development, would only be able to provide design advice.

Last week, Henley MP John Howell described the proposals as “visionary and democratic”.

But Jodie Rhymes, Henley Town Council’s planning officer, said they could have a negative effect on development in the town.

Speaking at a meeting of the council’s planning committee, she said: “The Government is seeking to radically change the planning system with an aim to provide greater certainty, beauty, technology and effective public participation.

“Under these proposals, local plans would expand the use of zoning tools to support development under the categories growth, renewal and protection.

“Planning policies would be set nationally and there would no longer be management policies in local plans or neighbourhood plans with neighbourhood plans restricted to just providing design guidance.

“Suitability of land for development would be determined at the first stage of the local plan. This has the potential to not consider issues on a local scale that would normally be considered when an application is being looked at.

“At the moment you would have a local plan and a neighbourhood plan with issues such as air quality and landscape that an application would be considered against. This proposal would get rid of those.

“The Government wishes to streamline public participation and it looks like the only opportunity to comment on the suitability of development would be at the local plan stage when the zones are drawn up and not when a application is being considered by South Oxfordshire District Council.

“On the face of it, it would remove the opportunity to scrutinise proposals and plans and understand the true implications on the local area.”

Ms Rhymes said the White Paper placed a “high regard” on design and proposal developments that met local design guides and neighbourhood plans would be fast-tracked. Councillor Laurence Plant said the needs of a local area should be taken into account when deciding planning applications.

He said the town council had spent years improving its joint neighbourhood plan with Harpsden and this had served the area to good purpose so far.

“Every town has such specific needs to itself,” said Councillor Plant. “Without greater specifics, the neighbourhood plan needs to have a strong say going forward to protect Henley.”

He added that few residents were interested enough in planning to comment at a local plan stage and to do away with consultation at the application stage was a “step away from democracy”.

The issue was also discussed at a meeting of the neighbourhood plan committee.

Kester George, who chairs Harpsden Parish Council, said he was “appalled” by the impression he had received from the Government’s proposals.

He said: “These documents are more in akin to Comrade Luckoschenko to a democratic society and that the various statements about consulting and taking advice and so on are just window dressing, of no significance at all. It is total central control, which is surely out of character and keeping with our parliamentary history.”

Patrick Fleming, who lives in Henley, said: “What we are meant to do as a community and neighbourhood is influence the local plan so my thought is we will probably get one shot at the beginning when the local authority puts together its plan for the area.

“We get one shot to present evidence and try to persuade them where growth, renewal, conservation and preservation areas should be and also to do with any policies.

“The worry, once that’s put in place, is there is no feedback, it is an open-ended system. The plan gets written and developers make hay with it. There is very little that we can then do, very little control, once that has happened.”

Rebecca Chandler-Wilde said: “Clearly the fight is going to be over which parts are designated for development and which parts designated for protection and that will be one almighty fight right at the beginning.”

Joan Clark said: “The simplification of the planning process — we must applaud that. The idea of democracy and transparency and more online, I don’t think these are things we would argue with.

“However, there is a great big contradiction there. It is supposedly more transparent and more democratic and yet so much is anti-democratic. There will be less community engagement and fewer opportunities for local decisions.

“There is nothing in there to positively improve the amount of social and affordable housing and a lot of it is pie in the sky.”

Public consultation on the White Paper is continuing until October 29. To respond, visit www.gov.uk/government/consultations/planning-for-the-future

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