Cllr Chris Criscione is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Uttlesford District Council.
Why do residents get so upset when a developer leaflet drops into their area as part of a consultation; with the plans drawn up, proposals near to set in stone, and little in the way of prior input from residents as the rule rather than the exception?
Well – simply put – it comes down to the all-too-familiar exclusion of residents and their representatives from the pre-application process, secret discussions surrounding planning obligations, and the very little influence that communities have as proposals come to be consulted on as part of the formal application process.
As someone straddling industry and politics, with passion and commitment to see planning work for communities, I say this with confidence: in my experience, the most successful development proposals are those where councillors are written to in the first week that a developer or promoter takes ownership of the site. That sort of approach, at the earliest possible outset, gives the councillor the ability to relay concerns and objections, hopes, ambitions and desires to those responsible for the creation of a scheme, within the constraints of policy and an applicant’s obligations or minimum requirements.
Notwithstanding the respect that national, regional, and local planning policy needs to be afforded in the formulation of proposals, from pre-application stage through to determination, it should seem alien to us all – although it is a seemingly normal means of operating – that councillors are excluded from discussions on the basis of probity in planning, where policy and opinion actually encourages to the contrary. At this juncture, I would also contest the widely-held notion that predetermination is inevitable in councillors’ early interaction with applicants. It is not, and councillors ought to be trusted in this respect.
What I’m calling the “probity obstruction” seems a cop-out of significant magnitude, which is not backed up in policy or law. In reality it is leading to the under-delivery of new homes when planning committee’s feel obliged to refuse plans under pressure from rightly disgruntled locals, leading to poor quality and inappropriate development where they are consented because local people haven’t been represented outside of the largely ineffective neighbour consultation stages, but also leading to developer contributions being spent on projects that are not popular or desirable amongst residents.
To be very clear, decision-makers’ involvement in the planning process should not replace the need for the local authority to consider planning policy, that is obvious. But the lack of councillor involvement does create a vicious cycle of resentment between communities, local authorities, and developers which could be easily solved through greater councillor input at the outset. In this setting, they can work within policy and with developers to reach mutual satisfaction.
The idea that councillors should be involved early on is not a new one. In statute and in guidance published by the Planning Officers’ Society and the Local Government Association, it is clear that there is a desire and encouragement to do this. Why, then, does it not happen in practice?
Frankly, it’s become an industry standard that public consultation takes place late in the process and when proposals have already been largely set in stone. This is hugely disappointing for many and I’m proud in my own professional life to have bucked the trend with my colleagues at Anderson in this regard. However, if that is an industry trend overall then involving councillors early on in the evolution of proposals would make that reality more acceptable to residents: they can then say that at least one of their own has been part of the work up to that point; that their voice had been heard. Without this involvement – bar any cosmetic or token changes to “show willing” by the applicant – people see a developer-officer led process and that’s bound to cause indignation in communities across the land.
My recommendation is simple: councillors should be allowed – both in policy and in practice – to maintain relationships with developers in their area. They need the freedom to tell an applicant in no uncertain terms what residents expect. There is nothing underhand about that, I would argue as far as saying it is remiss of a councillor not to do this.
The relationships I have built over the years with councillors who see the benefits of continued engagement with developers from day one through to completion and beyond cannot be understated for their value. The stigma needs to be removed and councillors should be able to represent those who expect representation in the planning process, beyond the statutory consultation which often feeds into the aforementioned vicious cycle of resentment.
It’s on councillors, officers, and developers, to make that happen for well-planned, healthy and happy communities in the UK.