The last time I waved a placard in anger was to protest against plans to build a superstore near our home. The borough council, in a breach of its local plan, decided to let a major retailer develop land that had been earmarked for housing. The collapse of the market in the early 1990s had made that a less lucrative opportunity than it once seemed.
But when it was clear that local opposition to yet another superstore would not subside, and house prices began to boom once more, the council reverted to its original plan, and housing – though at a greater density than originally envisaged – is now going up on a brownfield site that had lain empty for 15 years, despite the desperate need for new homes.
This was, predominantly, a triumph for the extraordinary efforts of a handful of dedicated campaigners against a retail giant – which had its own legal office devoted exclusively to fighting planning battles of this sort – and the council, which seemed determined to ride roughshod over local opinion.
Yet, had housing not improved as an investment opportunity enabling the retailer to sell on the land at a good profit, one suspects there would now be a superstore on the site.
There are few events in life more guaranteed to make the individual, even when supported by neighbours and backed by a councillor or an MP, feel more powerless than battling with the local authority or a major private company to stop an unwanted development.
The council will often argue that the needs of the many must outweigh the inconvenience of the few. The economic regeneration of an area cannot be held back because a handful of Nimbys don’t want the view from their gardens impaired (though it never seems to be the home of the council leader or the chairman of Anystore that is blighted).
Planning laws are a pain when all you want to do is build an extension on the back of your house or cut down a tree that is blocking your light; but when it is the neighbour who is carrying out the work, the question “Do they have permission?” is never far from our lips.
In a planning White Paper to be published today, the Government proposes to make it easier for people to build extensions and conservatories without planning permission. But the danger is that while we get side-tracked into discussion about the trees, we fail to see the wood. This White Paper has huge implications for the way we live and for the way our country looks.
It has the potential to lessen the paltry influence we now have over development. One of its purposes is to allow “strategic” developments, such as major road-building projects, airports, wind farms, housing estates and nuclear power stations, to be pushed through against local opposition.
A new independent commission will decide what should happen, taking account of the wider economic interests of the country, rather than a local public inquiry, which is considered too cumbersome. Campaigners believe this will mean goodbye to the Green Belt as we now know it.
The White Paper is also proposing to scrap the “needs test” which allows local authority planners to turn down supermarkets on the outskirts of towns and beyond in order to protect the traditional high street. The fear is that they will suck business, and the life, out of town centres.
Yet, in south London, campaigners are fighting to stop a supermarket setting up in the town centre as well. Sainsbury’s wants to establish a store in Barnes, and the council has agreed they can, but campaigners say residents do not want it.
Surely, the “needs test” we should be applying is not whether a superstore is required in the town centre or in the suburbs or 30 miles out on the motorway, but whether it is needed at all. There are far too many of them. In towns, local shops have already been killed off by mini-supermarkets that have sprung up on garage forecourts and in other locations. They may have the merit of not being out-of-town hypermarkets; but they can do just as much damage to a small grocer or butcher.
Asda lobbied hard for this needs test to be scrapped, apparently because of its concern that Tesco had an unfair advantage over land ownership. But the planning regime is not meant to be a plaything of the major retailers. It is supposed to be a way of involving the local community in the development of the area and yet, so often, the people it is meant to serve are frozen out. Today’s White Paper risks making this worse.
What is to be done? Elsewhere in today’s newspaper, the case for greater local devolution is made by Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell, both Conservative politicians. They recognise the teeth-gnashing frustration and powerlessness that many feel at an inability even to get their rubbish collected when they want it, let alone stop an airport being built at the end of their country lane.
Their Direct Democracy initiative wants to fan the embers of localism, which was all the rage a year or so ago, and “shift power from Brussels to Westminster, from Whitehall to local councils and from the state to the citizen”. They suggest locally elected sheriffs, selecting parliamentary candidates through open primaries and restoring municipal responsibility for social security.
They also propose making use of referendums, both locally and nationally. This country has never been one for such continental devices, easily manipulated by demagogues and populists. After all, we have the democratic structures that allow people to have their say through elected representatives, don’t we. But is anyone really listening?
We risk total paralysis if referendums are held on everything, so a high number of signatures would be needed to trigger one and they could not be legally binding. But something needs to be done to give people a semblance of control over their own environment; and if a hypermarket or an airport or a wind farm then goes ahead in the teeth of widespread local hostility, at least we would all know where we stood and whom to call to account.
By Philip Johnston
21 May 2007
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