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The planning laws are being reformed in the wrong direction

Eric Pickles’s announcement yesterday aimed to embed in the planning system a presumption in favour of development, combined with proposals to speed up the planning approval process for major infrastructure projects. But that misses the  the real flaws in the planning framework — that it is already massively tilted in favour of corporate power and against democracy. The developer almost always and inevitably gets their way whilst even the most resolute and determined objectors are virtually always forced to concede. The odds are already stacked so unevenly, yet the government ignores it.

At present if a Council representing local residents refuses planning permission, the developer can appeal to the Secretary of State. Losing the appeal can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds. Tesco or other huge organisations make that sort of money in hours or even minutes. The local Council however, if it loses, has no alternative but to put up its Council Tax, with all the inevitable political consequences, or make deep cuts in one or more of its public services. The present planning structure amounts to authorised blackmail.

If on the other hand the developer loses, it’s no more than a temporary setback. Either he can wait two years and then submit the same plan again, having softened up the resistance in the meantime or taking advantage of a change of political control, or he can make substantial changes in the plan and then submit it immediately. Intimidating the Council or grinding down local resisters into submission by these tactics virtually always does the trick.

And even if there is strong local objection, there is no guarantee that the Council will side with it. In Bristol recently 500 local people were asked their reaction to a Tesco development and 96% were against it, yet the Council, having received 2500 complaints and only 2 in favour, still wnet ahead and granted permission.

What today’s planning statement should have offered local communities is a right of appeal against planning decisions, with a protective costs order attached to equal the playing field with the likes of Tesco. Allied to that should be some limit applied to the developers’ rights of appeal.

But that is unlikely to happen when the government’s presumption in favour of development was first proposed by Lord Wolfson, a Tory peer and chief executive of Next which builds shopping storage outside towns. The Daily Telegraph unearthed a new cash for access scam whereby property developers cough up £2,500 to get to meet Ministers to put their views. And that was before the price rocketed to £250,000 for the ‘premier league’ members to get their sticky fingers in the No.10 policy machine.

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