Planning: a case study in why I love/hate it

by Stephen Tall on June 28, 2005

Most councillors will confess to a love-hate relationship when it comes to deciding planning applications. On the positive side, it is more or less the only time we get to make decisions which officers must stick by, and which immediately and directly affect people’s lives. On the negative side, planning law and common sense are not always the happiest bedfellows, and local councils are so hemmed in by central government ‘guidance’ (or, more accurately, diktat) that our hands are frequently tied behind our backs.

Tonight’s North East Area Committee meeting looked at an application in Headington which exemplifies this tension: the building of two 3-bed houses, and six flats on a site comprising eight (now) demolished garages, as well as part of the back gardens of 52-58 Windmill Road facing Bateman Street.

This was the third time we’d seen this application. The previous application, for five 3-bed houses, had reluctantly been accepted by the Area Committee last November on the grounds the applicant had undertaken this would be a ‘car free’ development excluded from the new Controlled Parking Zone which now operates in central Headington. Several of us voiced scepticism at the time that car free family housing in this area would be workable (we were proven right); but government planning guidance is to smile upon such schemes. In retrospect, I think we made the wrong decision, and should have stuck to our guns to reject the application at that stage. As it is, we approved it.

The new application was, in some respects, more sensible: the two houses were each to have one car parking space, and only the flats were to be car free (the occupiers to have no rights to resident or visitor permits in the parking zone).

However, what I felt was unacceptable was the squeezed-in top flats in the roof space. In each of these, the bedrooms were to be lit solely by (small) roof lights in order to preserve the privacy of the gardens these flats would overlook. To my mind, this kind of design trick is nearly always a sure giveaway of over-development (the planning term for cramming a quart into a pint pot). Nor was I ecstatic about the gardens of 52-56 Windmill Road being cut back to below the Local Plan standard of 10 metres’ length; though I was advised by the planning officers that this standard does not apply to flats (the current arrangement of Nos 52-56).

The Committee eventually decided (I think unanimously) to reject the application on the grounds of over-development, and massing to the street-scene. We shall see if the applicants now choose to go to appeal. If they do, I think the Council will have a strong case to defend the decision we made. The debate was informed and detailed, and we were deliberately narrow and precise in our reasons for rejection.

But this latest instance highlights the dilemma those of us who are councillors – and the wider public – face. We all accept the need for new housing. Most of us accept that there is a need for more smaller units owing to the fragmentation of the traditional nuclear family unit. (In other words, more people like me – young, single professionals wanting to get on the housing ladder; and more divorced/separated couples each maintaining a house. In the 1950s, there were just 1.5 million single occupants; today there are over eight million of us.)

However, the choices are not appetising. On the one hand there is the intensification of ‘brownfield’ sites – such as the application we looked at tonight – and, with it, some uncomfortable compromises on design standards we would ordinarily demand (like reasonably sized bedroom windows); and on the other hand is the unpopular prospect of building on land currently designated ‘green-belt’.

Each month at the Area Committee, we see these big issues in miniature, and appreciate yet again the effect of macro-planning policies on the residents who live in our communities. The challenge for councillors is, I believe, two-fold.
First, to explain this to our residents when they come to us about the individual application which is exercising them so that they will better understand the planning decision-making process.

And, secondly, to be absolutely level with residents about what can, and (often) cannot, be achieved within planning law. There is no point inflating residents’ expectation that an application can be rejected if there are simply no planning grounds to support this. The 52-58 Windmill Road application was a case in point. Residents, understandably, are unhappy about the traffic and parking problems in Headington – these new houses and flats are, therefore, the last thing they want. However, it would clearly be wrong for councillors to use this as a reason for refusal given the new development would have had just two parking spaces when the site once accommodated eight garages.

It is all too easy for councillors to choose the easy option: to agree with residents’ objections even when we know they are not defensible in planning law. It’s simple and popular, and a good thing to put on your next leaflet. The problem is if the applicant challenges the decision in a subsequent appeal, and the Council is on dodgy ground, not only might the decision be overturned (with costs against the Council), but any conditions you might have been able to eke out of the applicant most likely go up in smoke too. In other words, you win the battle but lose the war.

My experience of talking to residents is that they want to know as much as possible so they are on a level playing field with the applicants (whose agent will obviously be better versed in planning law). My three point plan is simple: (i) tell residents I cannot say which way I will vote as I cannot pre-judge, or be seen to pre-judge, the application (I usually put this in writing in an e-mail so I don’t compromise my position); (ii) highlight what I think will be the key planning issues in the officer’s report, and why, and suggest they focus their attention on these areas (only one good planning reason is needed to refuse an application; coming up with a dozen looks vexatious); and (iii) suggest they think if there are any conditions which, if the application is approved, would make it more bearable (it’s amazing how practical and ingenious people can be!).

When it goes well – when residents are prepared constructively to engage with the planning process (rather than see it as the Council’s devious plot to persecute them) – planning can be an immensely rewarding part of a councillor’s job. Sometimes, if it’s a black-and-white case, the plans are rejected outright by the officers; and you breathe a sigh of relief (for a quiet life).

But, actually, the ones which are most interesting are the grey area applications: first, those which councillors choose to reject against the officer’s advice (and which are usually superseded by improved plans which address at least some residents’ objections); and, secondly, those which you know are going to be hard to refuse on good planning grounds, but which, by adding conditions, you can make more palatable to residents. It’s with these applications one really earns one’s councillor’s corn – by working closely with residents to make a positive difference to our community: which, after all, is why most of us stood for election in the first place.