The city council committee which recently approved two major developments in central Canterbury – and which last month approved the Station Road West car park – contained just TWO councillors from city wards.
All the others were from Whitstable, Herne Bay or rural wards. It may therefore not be a surprise at all that a small housing development on an existing residential site in Tankerton got turned down, while the major plans in Canterbury got the nod in the face of significant concern from local residents.
This situation isn’t a result of politics but of geography. How can it be fair, or effective, when the city, which has 11 of 39 Council seats (31%) gets just three of 13 (23%) on planning?
When the largest and most contentious construction schemes, with all the attendant disruption to residents, are in the city, why do Gorrell ward and Blean Forest residents get two seats each – more than the whole of the city – on the planning committee?
That’s not fair representation. And it doesn’t provide the effective local insight which is essential to understanding the impact of planned developments.
The root of the problem lies in the council having reduced the number of councillors in 2014. The cut from 50 to 39 was misguided and superficial in its attempt to cut costs.
It was also ideological, in trying to ensure more control over councillors as the council changed back to a committee system rather than a cabinet system.
As a result, it is now much more difficult to achieve both geographical balance and political balance.
And since the city wards have three Lib Dems and three Labour councillors, increasing the city’s representation on planning would risk upsetting the party political balance requirements, which is apparently more important than fairness.
If there were more councillors in total, it would be easier to do both. But for this council, geographical balance is clearly an irrelevance. As a result, it is pain-free for councillors representing wards outside the city to vote to approve major developments inside it, while having the luxury of turning down small scale ones in their own wards.
They don’t have to face voters at the ballot box whose lives and city they’ve just blighted.
And before anyone shouts “Mountfield Park”, that’s within the city wards and, just as importantly, likely to have a much more significant impact on traffic and pollution and schools and property in the city than in the rural wards.
Whether this under-representation of the city residents is deliberate or accidental doesn’t much matter to all those who are going to be affected both by the construction and the subsequent additional traffic and pollution, or the eyesore that is the new station car park.
The planning committee is taking decisions which will have an impact they neither have to live with nor, quite likely, fully understand.
Given the tendency of too many councillors to accept the recommendations of the council’s officers without challenge – many of our revered elected representatives never question anything put in front of them, so far as I can tell – the serious business of checking assumptions and actually representing the people of the district is left undone.
All this shows why there has been a call for the delegation of such decisions to the Area Members’ Panels.
That would not be without its challenges. It would require more training for the councillors so that they fully understood the issues and avoided inadvertent “nimbyism”.
There is no perfect solution. But surely a more locally informed panel would be better than the current imposition of decision-making by people who lack insight into the area and are not affected by the consequences?
Whatever the best, or least worst, solution is, all this demonstrates a need for the continuing reform of our council’s decision making, and for finding real ways of improving engagement with residents.
We can’t have a situation in which nothing new ever gets built, but we have to be capable of more informed and better decisions than we’ve seen in the last few weeks.
Dave Wilson is a Labour Party member and community activist who has worked in and around local authorities for 35 years. He is a trustee of Kent Savers Credit Union and the Westgate Hall in Canterbury.