Cllr Louise Goldsmith is the former Leader of West Sussex County Council
Amidst all the manifestos, promises of spending, new beginnings, changes and getting Brexit done, there is one glaring omission which impacts on all of us, the areas where we live, the environment, climate change and physical well-being and that is Planning.
It is surprising because if you talk to most people across the country, wherever they are, people will have something to say about planning and overall they are not happy. The truth of the matter is the current planning system is not delivering, pays scant regard to the environment, a sense of place and climate change – what is worse it is deeply divisive. Neighbourhood Plans have been a good idea to engage the communities, however, they do not have any real weight in planning law, as seen in recent Court Cases. This is a real shame as so much work goes into Neighbourhood Plans by Parish Councillors and members of the public to produce the plan. But in reality, a Neighbourhood Plan can be easily disregarded which only goes to breed further cynicism in a public who are at worryingly high levels of scepticism.
In 2004 Structure Plans were abolished as they were seen as too slow in delivering development, and in part that may be true but they did provide a broader more strategic view which linked into infrastructure, planning was undoubtedly better for these Structure plans. The Regional Spatial Strategies which followed were short-lived and disbanded in 2010 leaving us with a fragmented system, based on local plans, centrally controlled and driven by housing numbers with guidance in the National Planning Framework. Bodies such as the Environment Agency are statutory consultees with no teeth or right of veto, their policies are not written in the National Planning Framework – at a time of climate change with more occurrences of flooding this is deeply worrying.
Houses need to be built and there is a big demand for more social housing too, most people get that, but the imposition of housing numbers with little or no reference to ‘the place’ means many objections – often with very good cause, are dismissed as nimbyism and generally ignored. Sadly many MPs prefer to keep away from planning issues, often paying lip service only, being all too difficult, controversial and time-consuming.
In the Chichester District there is a particular issue, a large amount of land to the north of the city is in the South Downs National Park, which means housing has to be allocated in the South of the District but that has Chichester Harbour an area of outstanding natural beauty a RAMSAR and a triple SSI site as well as Pagham Harbour which is also a RAMSAR site and Medmerry (an EU designated compensatory site). This makes it one of the most significant and important coastal plains in the UK for wildlife/habitat and as a buffer zone for coastal squeeze. Much of the remaining available land will be susceptible to rising sea levels in the coming years. Other land to the south of the District is required to grow a range of salad crops and is a thriving, important business sector for the area.
The limited land available is causing a squeeze on available sites and has the very real potential to irrevocably damage Chichester Harbour’s very delicate eco-structure which is already under threat as well as Pagham and Medmerry.
There is a belief that in building more houses the housing market will rebalance the house prices, already very high in the Chichester district and out of reach for many young people, will fall. But building more houses in an area where available land is a scarce commodity will not reduce values but increase them. In this scenario, if house prices eventually fall it will be because the houses and area have been degraded.
In the meantime, the promise of more land releases for development has pushed ‘hope values’ sky-high, whilst there is no effective mechanism to capture the benefit of a public policy for the benefit of public infrastructure whether it be ‘green’, transport, education, public space, or other benefits.
Chichester is not alone, other areas, particular historic towns and cities also have other issues relevant to the place but the individual cases being put are neither being heard, accepted or even understood.
More than ever the Government needs to commit immediately to completely overhaul the planning system, decentralise and devolve where communities are trusted and empowered. Ensure there is a greater emphasis, by direction, on local authority building and running social houses for those who are unable to get on the housing ladder.
Encourage higher density together with good thoughtful design based on the wellbeing of the residents, there are some good examples in the Nordic Countries to follow.
Attractive tax incentives to build on brownfield site. All homes built to the highest bream standards and the surrounding environment is enhanced to ensure the delicate ecosystems have a chance to recover from the current downward spiral to extinction.
So many people, town planners, architects are of a similar view – if we all lobby together – we may be able to achieve the change that is desperately needed by communities across the land. Politicians are asking the public to trust them – they, in turn, should trust the communities and listen to the many who are saying the planning system is broken and needs to be fixed now.