Can someone tell me what planning committees are for?

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A planning committee meeting taking place in the Guildhall

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.

How the student block on the Barretts site will look

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?

6 COMMENTS

  1. I accept that Planning Committees have only limited powers, but regret that ours in Canterbury seems incapable of using effectively, the powers that they do have, even to impose sensible conditions. For example, it would have been eminently practical to make a condition of planning approval that purpose built student accommodation should be constructed in such a way as to be easily capable of conversion to mainstream housing, should the need for PBSA change in future; but the planning committee rejected that opportunity.
    The writer makes the argument that the planning committee had little option but to approve Mountfield Park, the multi-storey car park and the Barretts PBSA , despite public opposiition, because they had no choice within planning law. While this may be partly true in respect of Mountfield Park and the Barretts site, this is most definately not the case for the multi-storey car park.
    Canterbury City Council made an application to itself, to build the car park on its own land with little thought to the consequences for either residents or the Conservation area. The council is under no external pressure to build this car park, I can’t find a reference to it in the Local Plan, and as the council owns the land, and can also give itself planning permission, I would have expected greater care on the part of the planning committee to scrupulously heed the evidence given by experts. as well as local people who know and understand the challenges of that area. At the committee hearing there was no meaningful debate, and the vote to approve was predictable At the very least, the committee could have referred the application back to the appropriate committees for further consultation based on the various exciting and innovative alternatives which have been suggested.
    In response to the writer’s final questions, I believe that our planning committee does still have some powers within the law, should they choose to use them. Sadly I see little evidence of this in Canterbury, and have to conclude that our own planning committee is not fit for purpose.

  2. “Does it have any real power to respond to the will of the general population”
    The planning committee decide on the facts, not the “will”.
    Ron Pepper, bless him, warned about “banana” objections – build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything…

  3. There is a lot of truth in this article. Councillors are given recommendations by Council officers who will consider applications using the local plan and planning law. If there are no “legal” reasons why an application should not be granted then the council may face expensive appeals if it turns something down that will ultimately be granted on appeal.
    Equally frustrating is the number of cases dealt with under delegated powers where officers make the decisions without it ever reaching the planning committee. Clearly this has to be done this way or else the planning committee would end up meeting every day to get through the applications, but some odd decisions do slip through.
    For example the refusal of solar roof panels because they are visible from the road. Planning needs to be more flexible to take into account the changing way that we live and protecting the environment should be just a worthy as protecting a view.

  4. Whilst committee officers are elected by the public, far too much is just stamped for approval with no discussion or even being seen by members of committees. As Mike Sole sas, CCC – and councils in general – are de facto bribed by cost of appeals from developers who can afford, not least when they know the committee are under such pressure.
    So that means the public are on the back foot at all times

  5. The. Committee makes it minds up before the meetings regardless of what is put before them. (Including tearing holes in the planning officers report with facts that show the report to be inaccurate) The committee sway to local public opinion and in the more difficult cases make their decision to follow the planning officers recommendations as this is the easy way out rather than challenge the planning officers details (facts)

    It is interesting to listen to the audio of the meetings, in some cases emotion takes over and decisions are made on this and not to local or national planning guidelines..

    There is a clear inconsistency with approval and rejections, the committee needs to work on the facts presented by both sides , take a good look at what they have approved in the past, and make good judgemental decisions when presented with plans that clearly meet the local and national plans, but might not be something they think is right in their eyes.

    Finally, how can the planning officer be allowed weeks to make their case, send the info in early for the committee to review, and the public only be allowed 3 minutes to make a compelling case ? 1 sided or what ?

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