Cllr David Burbage, Leader of Windsor and Maidenhead Council, argues for local authorities to have the right to actually make planning decisions, and hear any appeals, for applications in their local area
Although it is described as such, the local planning authority isn’t really an authority. The word “authority” is misleading because there is a higher “authority”, the unelected quango that is the Planning Inspectorate, which actually takes decisions that matter to local people when those local people have the temerity to reject specific applications.
It is therefore a surprise when they are presented with a plan for – let me cheekily suggest – a new traveller site in their area, and the local authority finds itself having to decide what to say based on complex policy work done to determine the right numbers of pitches in an area. But local people will usually have a far simpler view which will be communicated unequivocally to their elected representatives…but they don’t have effective power to deal with the situation.
Inevitably, even if the local councillors and local people are united in their view on the application, it will not be the local people, nor the local councillors, who actually decide on the application (if refused locally).
The Planning Inspectorate – a single Inspector – will actually decide. They will give “material weight” to local policies, regional plans, national guidance. What elected local people actually decided, given all of the evidence, isn’t necessarily brought into the judgement. “Local people voted against this application” is not, to use the jargon, a material consideration.
It is good that local plans are due to have increased weight under the new planning framework, although to have that weight, these local plans will need to have been certified for “conformity” by the independent examiner – presumably from the Planning Inspectorate. It remains to be seen whether the ambitious simplicity of the reduced guidance will empower local plans, or whether the Inspectorate will carry on expecting implied conformance with the old policy framework.
Nonetheless, we still need to give real decision making power back to local people, and certainly for planning applications that do not involve significant infrastructure considerations.
Why should an Inspector from Bristol tell a community whether or not the street scene will or will not be adversely affected by a house extension? Or whether a wall is too high to block the openness of the green belt? Or whether a non-illuminated advert is OK? Or whether a dropped kerb is acceptable? (Yes, Inspectors even determine appeals on dropped kerbs).
Given that the local authorities already have to spend taxpayers’ money in defending their committee or officer delegated decision, it would be very straightforward to put in place a local appeals system (and after all, the Planning Inspectorate wouldn’t have to spend that time on the same thing in future).
To misquote Monty Python’s Pope, local communities may not know much about planning policy, but they know what they like.