Is planning system spinning out of control?
Charles Green, planning spokesman for the CPRE in Shropshire, questions whether our democracy is working when it comes to planning policy
It’s easy to think we live with the best form of government, a ‘democracy’.
Derived from the Greek words for people, ‘demos’ and strength, ‘kratos’, it creates a notion of government where power is vested in the collective will of the people and administered via appointed officers. On the face of it and compared to the autocratic dictatorships which still exist in certain pockets of the world, this is a positive form of government to have.
The reality of elected officers is, however, a sticking point. Here in the UK, those ‘officers’ are MPs, who are collectively Parliament. However, most MPs either sit on the back-benches or are members of the opposition: they don’t have much of a say in actual policy – that’s dealt with by the small bunch of people in the Cabinet.
So much for collective people power!
It’s much the same closer to home. We elect local councillors, but it’s the council cabinet that makes the decisions – again, a small group of people. But shouldn’t we put our faith and trust in those we democratically elect?
In theory, yes. In reality, perhaps not. At both a national and local level many, if not most, people disagree with what those in power decide and whilst the Swiss model of regular referenda for decision making might provide one way around this; the UK’s recent experience might suggest it’s not a viable option.
But fear not, people are provided with the opportunity to have a direct say in important decisions via the process of consultations. The theory goes that you ask what the people think, listen to what they say, and adapt plans accordingly.
Legally, a consultation should provide the candid disclosure of the reasons for what is proposed; be undertaken at a time when the proposals are at a formative stage; include sufficient reasons for the particular proposals to allow those consulted to give intelligent consideration and response; and allow adequate time for full deliberation. The product of such consultation must be considered when the ultimate decision is taken.
The reality is very different. Many consultations are little more than box-ticking exercises, carried out purely to say it has taken place and packed with so much information so as to put many people off taking part.
This brings me to a situation much closer to home. Since early 2017, Shropshire Council has run a series of consultations on its local plan review that will determine how much and where development, notably new housing, will occur over the twenty years from 2016 to 2036.
To date, two consultations have been carried out. A third, on preferred sites, will soon commence and it is the imminent launch of that, November 29, that leads me to debate the balance between consultation and democracy.
My reason is simple: to date, I don’t believe that Shropshire Council has viewed recent consultations as anything more than box ticking exercises.
When the council published a summary following the first consultation, it showcased the levels of new housing that people supported. Moderate growth received support from 47 per cent of respondents; 12 per cent favoured significant growth; 32 per cent favoured high growth; and nine per cent did not choose an option. However, when the Council summarised its findings for a Cabinet meeting in June 2017, it stated that “Whilst there was a slight preference for the ‘moderate’ growth option, there was also a good level of support for ‘high’ levels of housing growth”. That is what we have come to know as “spinning” the facts.
When, at the next stage the council highlighted the highest option of 28,750 new houses, the CPRE queried this apparently perverse decision – one which flew in the face of both democracy and the consultation.
We were told that a consultation is not a referendum; responses to consultations do not stand alone, but the headline preferences expressed by a proportion of respondents are weighed both against specific comments made, and against existing and emerging evidence.
Madness, but when we gained access to the data from the consultation, it got worse!
The results were stark: at the first consultation, 88 per cent of members of the public and 74 per cent of town and parish councils preferred the lowest growth option. As a group, it was only agents (acting for landowners and developers) who preferred the highest growth option, to the tune of 88 per cent. Furthermore, many of these responses from agents were duplicated identical responses, all of them included in the count. Without getting weighed down in the detail, it was a very similar picture for the second round of consultation on the preferred scale and distribution of development.
I’ve challenged the council on this, and although it has never directly responded to us in writing, comments it’s made in the Press attribute its spinning of the facts on the need to consider the views of those who did not contribute to the consultation, whilst it justifies duplicate responses from planning agents on their representation of numerous landowners. When was a General Election in the UK ever decided on the wishes of those who didn’t make it to the polling station as opposed to those who did? I think my point is clear.
So as further consultation looms, where does ‘democracy’ feature? Experience to date suggests that the process is a sham. But it needn’t be. Historically, turnout by the county’s residents has been pitiful: 412 respondents in the first consultation; 591 in the second. That’s from a total number of households in the region of 136,000.
So, if you care about the proposed housing that could appear right on your doorstep in the coming years, take part in the consultation (November 29-January 31) and let’s make sure that consultation and democracy can work in harmony.