A few years ago I developed a maxim that whenever anyone tries to build anything significant in Canterbury, someone will object to it.
I didn’t mean to disparage those who do object, they have their reasons after all – only to point out a general truth relating to the planning process here.
Now, however, we a need a new maxim: namely, that whenever a significant development is approved by Canterbury City Council’s planning committee someone will always accuse it of corruption.
On Tuesday night, for instance, the committee approved three significant developments – at Kingsmead, Military Road and a new slip road off the A2 into Wincheap.
Councillors rejected the proposal designed by architect Guy Hollaway to build student flats on the old St Mary Bredin School site on the Ring Road.
This, someone pointed out on social media, was because the size of the bribes offered to the 11-member committee were not high enough.
Wait, y’wot? The committee listened to public opinion, formed its own view as to whether the flats should be built and came to the conclusion that they should not. And yet a number of people based on absolutely no evidence whatsoever decided it was due to insufficient bung quantities.
That’s a new one on me. Presumably, if the committee had gone with the planning officer’s recommendation to approve, the talk would instead have been of a wholly adequate kickback provision.
Sadly, I’ve grown accustomed to hearing the most ridiculous – not to mention defamatory – claims made against members of the planning committee.
I was the reporter who first broke the news that the council had approved the neighbouring Palamon Court student accommodation. The first two comments which appeared under the website story spoke of “brown envelopes” and “greased palms”. Nothing to do with effective use of a brownfield site in a city with two growing universities, then?
Three of the councillors sitting on the planning committee which approved the scheme had only been elected the previous month. According to this theory, therefore, they thought nothing of risking a prison sentence for a few hundred quid as their first act of “public service”.
The truth is that you simply don’t need to risk breaking the law to secure planning permission. You just need to know what you’re doing or hire one of the myriad consultants who can navigate you around the process.
You will need to know what you can build, what you can’t and what a particular local authority’s planning priorities are – not to mention factoring in numerous other potential considerations.
Moreover, this is done in public with documents readily available to anyone who wants to examine them.
So why do people arrive at the conclusion that the process is corrupt?
There are two primary answers to this conundrum.
One is that because people are aware of previous incidents of corruption, that it must happen in all places at all times.
But if we are aware of such things, then we are so because those committing them have been wheedled out, their activities revealed for all to see and denounce.
The crooked are then censured and either banished from public duty or prosecuted and even jailed, as in the case of the Kent Labour MEP Peter Skinner who fiddled public money for his own ends. Competent regulatory systems as well as a watchful Press and public are key to that.
The second answer is less obvious and requires an elementary assessment of human psychology.
There are people among us who are failures in life or perennial under-achievers and who cannot understand success, much less tolerate it.
Thus, success in any aspect of life or any venture is only explicable with references to dastardly practices: corruption, criminality, venality. Everyone involved is solely in it for themselves, always on the make while the rest of us have to suffer the consequences of their greed and self-aggrandisement.
This is not to deny that profit is a motive in commerce. Of course it is. But profit is what drives the engine, it creates wealth, jobs, future investment. The entrepreneurial spirit gets things done because that is its raison d’etre.
Anyone who looks for corruption in public life will find it most rife in the poorest – and usually most undemocratic – countries in the world where it exists not as the oil which lubricates the machine, but as the fundamental obstacle to general growth and prosperity.
The United Kingdom is patently not one of those places. More to the point, nor is Canterbury.
You might not like the plans you see submitted to the council’s planning committee. You might not want the proposals to see the light of day. But if, against your wishes, they do then it is necessary to look for an actual explanation for why things happen rather than arriving at a purely imagined one.