Unless you’ve been an applicant, an objector or you work in development, you’ve probably not been to Canterbury City Council’s planning committee.
Reading news reports about them, you might wonder how they function.
You might wonder, for example, why if there was such opposition to 4,000 homes in south Canterbury, the sprawling Mountfield Park development was approved.
You might ask the same question of the multi-storey car park in Station Road West – or of last night’s decision to grant permission for 120-bedroom student blocks on the Barretts site at the corner of St Peter’s Street and Pound Lane.
The thread common to all three is that despite there being little public appetite for any of them, the planning committee effectively had little choice but to approve them.
Why? Because far from being an autonomous decision-making body composed of representatives of the people elected to serve the interests of their constituents, the committee is there to rub democratic polish over what is essentially bureaucratic or technocratic activity.
It is hamstrung in numerous ways: from national planning policies, from the council’s own Local Plan, the rulings of “independent” planning inspectors, and – perhaps most crucially of all – the advice of its own council officers.
The committee rarely diverges – even though it has the power to – from the recommendations laid down in officer reports.
And not, it must be said, without good reason. For it is officers who understand the myriad rules within which planning takes place.
Any decision to reject an application where rules or policies or advice says otherwise can have all sorts of consequences – not least protracted judicial battles which could end up costing the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds. (This works the other way, too, where opponents of schemes launch campaigns to overturn planning permission given to them).
I accept that planning is a complicated battleground, assaulted from all sides by competing needs, desires, interests – national, regional, local, hyper-local, individual.
I’m also acutely aware that the sound and the fury of nimbies should not be allowed to thwart reasonable or sensible planning applications. Were that so, nothing would get done. All those people who need homes would never get them.
But returning to our humble Canterbury City Council planning committee, let me ask two questions: Does it have any real power to respond to the will of the general population where policies or bureaucratic mechanisms or the spectre of legal action prevent it so doing?
If not, is its raison d’etre merely to provide democratic credibility to a decision-making system far removed from the hands of ordinary citizens and imposed upon them regardless of their worries and fears, their hopes and aspirations?