Oxford Labour – ‘Don’t let residents near planning’

by Stephen Tall on September 10, 2006

One of the issues which continues to divide the two main parties on Oxford City Council is where planning applications should be decided.

The Lib Dems have always said that such decisions are best taken in open meetings in local area committees by councillors who represent the community and understand its issues. Labour, by contrast, appears increasingly keen to re-centralise planning decision-making, ensuring local residents and councillors are kept as far out of the way as possible.

A recent meeting of the Labour-dominated South-East Area Committee decided it was bored with planning, and preferred instead to wash its hands of it. This strikes me as an odd way of sticking up for your residents.

For sure, planning is a sometimes technical, always quasi-judicial process. It takes some getting used to the terms and practices employed. But it is also one of the few areas of Council responsibility in which the public and councillors can see decisions made which will immediately affect local people’s everyday lives.

If Labour were truthful, they would admit the real reason for wanting to take planning decision-making away from the area committees – that planning applications are often controversial, and councillors sometimes have no choice (if they choose to act responsibly) but to approve applications which will prove unpopular. To be blunt, it can be a vote loser.

If Labour were truthful, they would admit what their preferred solution really is – planning applications decided by a Town Hall committee (in front of as few members of the public as can turn up to a daytime meeting), with ward councillors able publicly to grandstand about how despicable an application is in the sure and certain knowledge that they need take no responsibility for whatever is decided.

In short, Labour would prefer not to represent their residents if it’s going to be too hard.

And yet planning is an area where a councillor can really make a difference if they’re prepared to put in the graft.

When a resident approaches me about a planning application, I’m careful to play it straight down the line. I tell them from the start that I will not make any promises about which way I’ll vote, as to do so would compromise my neutrality and disqualify me from determining the application.

But what I will promise to do is give them as much advice as they need to be able to put their point across in their letters of objection to (or, very occasionally, support of) an application, and to make an effective representation at the area committee. I will tell them what planning policies in the Local Plan councillors will be looking at, and what arguments they are likely to hear put by the applicants.

In effect, my job is to try and level the playing field – to ensure that my residents are as well-armed with the information they will need to represent themselves as the developers with their expensive planning consultants will be. To do anything less would be to sell my residents short.

And when an application is heard by the area committee, again councillors are not powerless. One of the first things I advise my residents to do is to consider what conditions they would like to see the Council impose should the application be approved – what changes might make it a little more bearable.

For example, one application in my ward was for an extension and subdivision of a family house to provide two flats. In some ways, a small issue – but one which was of real concern to the residents of the street.

Although there were no planning grounds on which to reject it, there were a couple of conditions which the area committee could impose – for example, a garden maintenance plan, so that the landlord will have to take responsibility for looking after the gardens. We imposed the condition because we’ve seen what has happened throughout the North-East of Oxford when absentee landlords all too often have little regard for the state of their properties – the gardens become wildernesses, and the area looks uncared for.

Of course, I could take the easy way out. I could simply sympathise with residents, say how dreadful such-and-such developers are, and stick my hand up to vote against an unpopular application. But I know that if I did so without good cause, such a decision would be over-turned on appeal by a Planning Inspector, probably with costs awarded against the Council.

Not only would I have cost my residents more on their Council Tax, but I would have lost the chance of getting imposed some conditions which might make their lives that little bit better.

So, yes, planning is a quagmire, a minefield and a tight-rope. Which is why it’s all the more important that councillors fully understand what’s involved so that they can represent their residents to the best of their abilities.

Take planning decision-making away from the areas affected and local councillors’ lives will be made a lot easier. It’s our residents who will be short-changed.