Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
In some areas, the planning system appears to be not only unfair but unresponsive to local need, and unreasonably turgid, with an emphasis on the petty rather than the “big picture”.
When a friend living in rural Suffolk village, which is part of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, had to re-roof his garage, he did it ‘sympathetically’, with tiles identical in style and age to those which had been used on his original cottage, refurbished some years earlier by a previous owner.
Yet local planning officials decided that they had to be removed and replaced with old pantiles.
He politely challenged the decision, because neither the cottage nor the garage were listed and the latter was detached from the cottage, of later construction and heavily screened by mature trees and shrubs. But, threatened with legal action, he did as he was told at significant cost although there was no discernible difference in appearance.
Ironically, the council subsequently refused to take enforcement action to remove a roadside plastic picket fence, just yards away, which did not comply with planning conditions associated with a cottage restoration, and, directly opposite, consented to what locals describe as a “monstrous” new house, totally out of keeping in both design and size with its very prominent, sensitive, location.
This council is now resisting the conversion of a derelict prominent former pub, closed for a decade, vandalised and in poor structural condition, to an artisan bakery and tea room with accommodation above in the same village. Planners want it to be a wine bar, despite there being two popular pub/restaurants (which serve wine) within walking distance and the general store recently closed. Local opinion in support of the bakery is completely ignored, and the frustrated owner has boarded up the site leaving it to rot further.
Again ignoring local opinion, in February 2014 consent was granted for 285 new homes, hotel and nursing home, together with retail/commercial buildings on a redundant historic riverside site, but without any much-needed affordable housing. The council rejected concerns about the impact of construction traffic as well as hundreds more cars on the narrow winding roads running through a series of villages and adjacent agricultural land, which are already littered daily with the corpses of badgers, hedgehogs, rabbits and hares, cats, birds, and deer (one of which was recently left writhing in agony in the road with blood pouring from it having been hit by a speeding vehicle).
So far, the site remains vacant, with a heritage monument rotting. No-one quite knows why, and a local councillor, who also happens to chair the planning committee, is mute. However, consent was recently granted for about 70 new homes on the edge of another village, which will further adversely impact on the local road network and services. That’s at least an extra 70 cars having to cope with a riverside road which completely floods several times a year at high tide. A new road is desperately needed to by-pass the villages and river, but this is never mentioned by those in authority, although it would benefit the local economy, enabling new development with local support.
Elsewhere, it was recently announced that plans for thousands of new homes in a ‘Garden City’ to the north of Ipswich, which have been discussed for at least five years, are deferred for another year because the county council has raised concerns about infrastructure (roads, schools, potential flooding etc). Yet these were raised at the very outset of the ‘discussions’ by just about everyone in the immediate area and neighbouring villages, including politicians, during repeated pre-planning and public meetings. A northern by-pass is the only viable solution, which has been on the agenda for as long as I can remember.
Meanwhile, Labour-controlled Ipswich Borough Council is reportedly acquiring large and small sites across the town and its environs to build more council homes (adding to the more than 8,500 it still owns), overlooking the fact that most people want to own their homes, rather than paying rent all their lives. This ‘strategy’ is also potentially a big cost to local council taxpayers. With a population of around 137,000 – and council tax already twice that of affluent Wandsworth, despite properties being much smaller and wages lower than the national average – it will fall to a relatively few households in the town to subsidise this ‘investment’. Plus all the additional costs associated with managing an ever-expanding council estate, not to mention the millions of pounds being borrowed, especially if interest rates rise.
Surprisingly, the council’s own planning applications seem to sail through the process unscathed, in contrast with those from the private sector, which are delayed endlessly for years as house prices increase. The council doesn’t appear to understand that all their demands and delays only add costs which have to be covered by house buyers on the finished properties, whilst sites remain barren eyesores and inward investment suffers because the demographic and housing stock doesn’t suit the many individuals and businesses which should be attracted to the town, given its commutability for the City and supposed status as the capital of Suffolk.
There is a demand for quality private housing, but developers – faced with such intransigence, rising construction costs and a shortage of workers – are walking away to concentrate on sites in areas with a more pragmatic approach to planning. Yet critics accuse them of amassing land banks. There are obvious benefits to good planning, but I was recently told by a former Head of Planning that the system is in disarray, lacking vision and the desire to make things happen by working with developers rather than against them. Nothing, he says, is joined up.
It’s reported that only two per cent of the UK is actually developed, so there is considerable potential to increase housing stock, perhaps by adopting national policies with simple criteria which allow up to 40 units to be built in designated areas on sites with an optimum size without going through the planning process, providing they comply with Building Regulations, which could have oversight. This would reduce costs and speed up delivery, whilst releasing planning departments to concentrate on larger projects.
Another option would be to allow landowners to develop an agreed proportion of their land for a limited number of new houses in return for donating sites for community housing. And a proportion of publicly owned land in selected areas could be sold on a 125-year leasehold basis to each new homeowner, instead of a developer paying up-front, again reducing costs for both the developer and purchaser. The landowner would receive an annual income (service charge) for grounds maintenance and retain an asset, which could be disposed of on completion of a scheme.
The Sunday Times recently published a Planning Special, and readers’ responses can be summed up in this one comment from a retired architect:
“It is now more than 50 years since I started work as an architect. The question used to be: Is there any reason to refuse permission?’ Now it seems to be: Why should permission be granted?”