Thursday, 16 June 2011

Planners, Big Society and how grazing horses isn't allowed in the 'green belt'

I have a soft spot for planners. Partly through a continuing love affair with maps and plans and partly because planners get a raw deal – they don’t set the rules (although at times they implement them with unwarranted gusto) after all.

Despite this I know that the Director of Planning at the Department for Communities and Local Government is shouting at the deaf when she says:

The profession had "a big role in the Big Society", she said. "You already know the communities - you already have an 'in'," she said.  "Central government is devolving an enormous amount to you. We are less concerned than ever about processes and more concerned about making things happen".

I recall sitting – right back at the early days of the localism debate – in a meeting discussing rural development and hearing the comments of a Director of Planning from a large rural authority:

“Giving Communities rights to influence planning is the thin end of the wedge.”

This view more accurately characterises the approach of planners than does the exhortation of the DCLG’s planning boss. Here’s the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) on the subject of the ‘Community Right to Build’ a core element on the localism bill:

“Proper planning scrutiny has served us well whereas this proposal appears to disempower local authorities by removing their right to determine development proposals and may mean that new housing built as a result may conflict with existing wider community priorities, and will only have to meet nationally prescribed minimum standards, even if the local authority wishes to see higher design standards in its own area”

What they mean here is that local communities might actually decide for themselves what housing development that want to see and where. Without needing the scrutiny of the RTPI’s members!

Many planners see themselves as guardians of sacred texts – PPGs, PPSs, rUDPs and a legion of other documents drawn up, it seems, more to confuse the layman than to allow a genuine role for local communities in determining what developments happen on their patch. As a councillor, I take a pretty simple view, if there’s no substantive opposition to something it should be allowed. Planners, on the other hand, believe differently.

I’ve been to two planning meetings in recent weeks – on both occasions regarding developments in the ‘green belt’. Now, I’m not going to bore you about ‘green belt’ policies – if you want to know more it’s all in PPG2 – but suffice it to say they are ridiculous and contradictory. The first of my two visits to planning concerned the further development of an industrial rendering plant located in the ‘green belt’ between Denholme and Thornton (North West of Bradford).

The Committee – despite my eloquent arguments – voted to allow a huge trailer store at this plant, ostensibly to allow 24 hour operating while reducing the stench that comes off the rotting animal by-products that feed the plant. Maybe they were right but, and this is important, the whole plant (a significant industrial process) has been constructed in the ‘green belt’.

Go forward a couple of weeks to my second visit. This time I’m with a local resident who wants to build a modest hay store to support her grazing horses. Foolishly, this resident had believed it when a planning officer gave a verbal OK to the construction of the hay store with the result that, shortly following the commencement of building, enforcement notices were issued. Subsequently an initial planning application was refused and the resident submitted a second application – this time taking proper planning advice and providing support from horse nutrition specialists.

In contrast to the rendering plant – a stinking, noisy intrusion into the ‘green belt’ – this modest proposal (again despite my eloquence) was refused. One Councillor described the half complete building as an “abortion” while others clambered up onto high horses proclaiming the sanctity of the Council’s ‘green belt’ policies. A complete contrast to the discussion about the extension to the rendering plant where members – the same members – had fallen over each other to explain “more in sorrow than anger” how necessary a huge store for trucks was and that this justified a massive development in the ‘green belt’.

What I also know is that, had my local resident want the barn to store feed for sheep, pigs or cows, she would not have needed planning permission. After all, grazing horses isn’t an allowable land use in the ‘green belt’. Go figure!


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