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Council planning departments need to put more thought into things

Gordon Ansell Opinion, Society, Rant 917 words.

Council planning image.
Credit: Brillian Fu
The other day I was wandering around my local village with a friend’s dog in tow, rebuilding my chi as usual, and I noticed the new houses they’re building at the top of the village.

I used to live in that part of the village but have since moved. Had I still lived in that part of the village I’d be mighty upset indeed, mainly at the local council. I will obfuscate the council names to protect the guilty, but I’m talking about Tau*ton Deane Borough Council, which has recently become So*erset West and Tau*ton Council.

The crux of the problem is this: councils are terrible at managing planning. I have had direct experience of dealing with council planning departments and everything’s basically decided by an unelected executive. They then ‘recommend’ whether councillors should approve or reject a planning application and 99 out of 100 times the councillors simply follow that advice. I’d wager councillors don’t even read the planning application in most cases.

It’s not entirely the fault of the local planning executive of course. They work within a national planning framework and are subject to various pressures from central government. I do however believe there’s enough leeway for local councils to do a better job.

One of my biggest complaints is that councils prefer to create urban sprawls rather than limited, self-contained villages.

The village where I live was a hospital until the mid-90s. There were maybe 30 or 40 houses here and their residents originally supported the development of the hospital grounds into a so-called ‘new village’. The council sold them the idea that it would be something like 300 houses maximum. I forget the exact number but it was that or fewer.

Yet we’re now well on out way to 1,000 houses.

I am aware there has been a population explosion and there’s allegedly now a housing crisis. I don’t want to get into the ins and outs of that so let’s just accept we need more houses for the purposes of this article.

Why create urban sprawls though? Why not create a series of size-limited developments instead. Do what they did with the village I live in but do it somewhere else. Maybe set the limit on new villages to something like 500 houses, which is enough to support a pub and a shop.

I can guess why they don’t do that: it’s probably because it costs way more money to start from scratch rather than continually tack houses on to an existing development. The argument would probably be that the cost would be passed on to developers and they simply wouldn’t pay it. This wouldn’t please councils because, if developers refuse to develop, they wouldn’t be able to hit the targets for house building set by central government.

So it needs to start with central government. They need to take some responsibility when it comes to building nice places to live. They need to set the limits in law. If developers can’t go somewhere cheaper and create urban sprawls, they’ll find a way to start developing somewhere from scratch.

But I’m not letting local councils off that easy. They approve new developments but then they’re simply not interested in monitoring things thereafter. Developers take many liberties. A developer adjacent to me literally stole some of our land. We told the developers and they simply said it was their land; we told the council and they just weren’t interested. Eventually, after about 18 months, they had to give the land back to us, but only after solicitors were involved.

People just want nice places to live. The oft-quoted adage in planning circles is that nobody is entitled to a view. That must change. At the very least, you should be able to see a plan that shows the maximum extent of the village or hamlet you live in. If you live on the edge of that and can see fields, you should always be able to see fields.

We can make certain projections. The current UK population is 67.6m and that’s projected to rise to 74m in 2050, although the rate of increase is expected to decline. So let’s play it safe and make plans for 75-80m people — what’s to stop someone getting a map out and planning where the additional people are going to go?

I truly believe that developing nice places to live has a knock-on effect for society as a whole. People are more likely to care about a place if it’s nice and they are more likely to be happy. Contrarily, if they make people live in dumps they won’t care, they’ll be unhappy and crime will increase. There’s plenty evidence of that in the UK.

I would also ask why they always place all the so-called ‘affordable housing’ together in one place. This is what creates ghettos. It should be interspersed evenly amongst other houses.

Another problem is the way planning departments notify people. They generally just stick a notice on a lamppost somewhere and that’s easily missed (maybe that’s their intention). I think it should be part of their duty to inform everyone within a two mile radius, either by post or by email (if a person has registered their email address with the council).

I appreciate the country needs more houses and I appreciate the pressure planning departments are under to reach targets, which is why I think it has to begin with central government and national policies. What I’m saying is that more thought needs to go into it and they should avoid creating so many urban sprawls.