Chris Skidmore is the Member of Parliament for Kingswood and a Member of the Health Select Committee. Follow Chris on Twitter.
If there is one issue that unites people in the Kingswood constituency that I was born in and represent, it is protecting the Green Belt. Ever since Labour tried to build 10,000 houses on it, and even before, local campaigns led by committed residents have had to continually fight to prevent development that would pave over much of the open space between Bristol and Bath.
The problem is that the odds are stacked against local opponents of unpopular planning decisions, in an ongoing battle between David and Goliath. Petitions are signed, protests take place, local councillors are lobbied, and politicians take the message to Westminster. Yet all too often, the deep pockets and corporate resources of developers, combined with a bewilderingly complex planning system, makes David’s slingshot pale into comparison.
At present, it is only the developer that can appeal against the refusal of planning permission, aside from legal challenges there is no similar right of redress for those affected by a decision. Local councils are often keener to avoid a messy appeals process than to stand up for those people that they are democratically accountable to.
After polling my constituents’ views, I introduced a Ten Minute Rule Bill earlier today that would enshrine in law a community right of appeal against planning decisions.
So, how would this work?
Once planning permission is granted by a local authority, there would be a 60 day window in which local people could organise a petition that would trigger an appeal- if they managed to persuade a certain percentage of people on the electoral roll to sign it. I envisage this to be a comparatively high threshold, perhaps 50% of the electors in the specific ward, though this is a detail that is open for discussion. The point of the high threshold is to ensure that a small unrepresentative group cannot hijack the process to oppose developments that are of benefit to the local community.
This gives local people an opportunity to put their case to other local residents. More, it will ensure that when a planning decision is opposed those challenging it will be able to say with confidence and evidence that they are representing the views of the local community. This is localism with teeth.
It will also be good for local democracy, where too many people feel that their local authority is a distant, impregnable fortress whose walls can never be breached. This idea should be particularly positive for local councillors themselves, who are well placed to lead and organise opposition to unpopular planning decisions. Equally the resources and reach of a Member of Parliament to help trigger this appeal process could be exercised on behalf of the community. Local campaigning is vital to encourage political engagement- this would be a tangible way to show show that politics is not just something that happens to people.
I am a believer in localism, and for me localism involves devolving power not just away from unaccountable civil servants in Whitehall, but also from unaccountable local authorities as well. The planning system should be a level playing field, not a one way street.