Cllr Stephanos Ioannou is a councillor in Enfield. He is studying Public Policy at King’s College London.
Local councillors across the country will know the struggle is real in the planning system. Not only does it seem to be irresponsive to the real needs of our local communities that are in need of mixed residential, commercial, office, public buildings and green space. But we see planning applications that pose more negatives than positives being allowed to pass through for ‘the greater good, and the bigger picture’.
One surprising reason for this can be derived from the fact that awarding planning permission in the UK comes down to a Faustian pact. If the devil is in the detail, then the detail is Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. Specifically, a clause which formalised “planning gain”, making it in the local authorities’ interests to allow schemes to balloon beyond all reason, in the hope of raking some of the developers’ profits for the public good.
Introduced as a negotiable levy on new development, Section 106 agreements entail a financial contribution to the local authority, intended to be spent on offsetting the effects of the scheme on the local area. The impact of a hundred new homes might be mitigated by money for extra school places, or traffic calming measures. In practice, since council budgets have been reduced, Section 106 has become a primary means of funding essential public services, from social housing to public parks, health centres to highways, schools to play areas. The bigger the scheme, the fatter the bounty for both developers and authorities. Vastly inflated density and a few extra storeys on a tower can be politically justified as being in the public interest, if it means a handful of trees will be planted on the street.
My borough, Enfield, is seeing a surge in young families moving to our borough to escape the surge in housing costs elsewhere in the capital. Predominantly the reasons for the rising demand in our borough are those highlighted by an article in the Evening Standard which mention the ease of accessibility with good motorway connections, good transport links into central London, as well as a the fact that average house prices are modestly rising only 0.4% in our borough, which is something to be reckoned with compared to other parts of London.
But things start to go wrong when planning departments do not take into account, aspects of the local area that make our borough unique. Whether looking at local heritage, the mix of commercial, residential, offices, and the style of new builds, often Enfield Council is quick to bow to the demands by developers and architects for the simple reason of referring to ‘the housing shortage and the need for new homes’. This is a poor state of affairs, and I am worried that the council is moving towards the path of jeopardising local beauty and conservation for the sake of housebuilding. Particularly for a borough such as Enfield which is lucky to have the green-belt it does, this is a real problem for councillors who have to defend their communities.
The issue of planning is also one that concerns the issue of bureaucracy within the council, that sometimes leads to poor decisions and outcomes on certain issues. I remember a local constituent having issues with an application for the property behind her. The Council had, instead of looking at the issue and reopening the planning decision, moved on ‘under delegated powers’ despite major resident objections, to see this build through. This point is echoed by a piece in the Enfield Independent which mentioned that the construction caused ‘considerable cracks in the neighbouring properties of other residents’, and that despite objections being raised within the given time-frame of the regulated pre-planning decision consultation, the planning committee on the council did not even bother to respond to residents’ concerns, and even after ringing, residents could not get in touch with the department.
This goes fundamentally to the heart of what us Councillors try to do, and sometimes can’t do, that is to help our residents most when they need it. Why? Because the failures of planning departments, in this case, mean bureaucracy causes delays, which then causes miss-representation, which then lead to poorly made planning decisions that affect not only the aesthetics of the area, but the general confidence residents have in the council dealing with their concerns in future.
It also raises a bigger question, as to how many similar cases are there, where other developments have gone through without the necessary vigorous scrutiny they need? I agree that we must build for new families and promote a home-owning democracy, but if departments simply rubber stamp applications without giving the power to residents and councillors to scrutinise for the greater good, then what’s the point in even having these departments anyway. We might as well pack up and go home as Councillors, because they are making a major part of our job redundant.
Overall, we have a conundrum of problems. Firstly, local councils are disregarding the necessary mix of residential, commercial and office space for the sake of building homes to fix the housing crisis. This is further worsened by the fact developers can ‘help’ plug the funding pressure of new homes, and contribute towards the funding of some local services, and this makes it increasingly tempting for councils to bow to these demands so that they can increase provision because budgets are tight. And then there is the nitty-gritty issue of local residents who struggle to even express their concerns to local planning departments, and this does not help residents build trust in councils who clearly disregard their concerns.
Local council planning departments such as those in Enfield need a major rethink as to how they approach future planning applications. Otherwise we can expect poor decisions on planning to continue into the future, to the detriment of existing residents.