Monday, September 30, 2013

Local Democracy

This afternoon I was at Municipal Buildings in Stockton to support Save Stockton South as they handed in their petition to the council.  This umbrella organisation of pressure groups has worked very hard over the last couple of months to get more than 2000 signatures on a petition calling on Stockton council to review its planning decisions, following some of the most inconsistent and ludicrous decisions imaginable.  The petitioners had made an appointment to hand in the petition to the Council's Head of Law & Democracy but were greeted by Cllr Bob Cook, Labour leader of the Council, who in turn presented the group with copies of a motion to be put to the next council meeting by the Labour group.  Their motion, obviously designed to placate the petitioners, calls on the council to ask the MPs for Stockton to lobby government for changes in the National Planning Policy Framework.  But as one of the campaigners said, they can't blame it all on the NPPF.

National policies have always taken precedence over local ones since the concept of Town and Country planning was introduced.  There had to be a local plan, but in conformity with the national policies and guidance.  Then the Labour government introduced what was supposed to be an easier system, more flexible and able to respond to changing local need.  The Local Development Framework was born, or at least was conceived.  The amount of consultation and response to each stage of consultation meant that the LDF became even more cumbersome than the local plan.  Stockton's LDF seemed to take longer than many because planning officers and senior politicians seemed to be in super-cautious mode.  Just as Stockton finally got the first document in place the housing market crashed, developers said they couldn't build the houses they'd expected to build and the housing section of the LDF had to be rewritten.  Enter the NPPF, giving a fairly short period of time to convert the LDF into a Local Plan or face the consequences.  Stockton was left with a set of planning documents which didn't accurately reflect the housing market in the area.  Consultations were ongoing.  Did they try to stop development while getting the policies right?  Not a chance.  Did they try to argue that having almost 5 years' supply of deliverable housing was OK while they sorted out where the rest would go?  Not a chance.

Some approvals were given which, though not welcome, were expected.  Some refusals came which were very welcome and sometimes unexpected.  But then came the one that really put the cat among the pigeons - a proposal for a retirement village in the Green Wedge in the most tranquil part of the Tees Heritage Park.  Hundreds of objections, planning officer recommends refusal, planning committee agree with him and refuse it.   Developer goes to appeal and in the meantime submits a revised application, still not acceptable.  Again hundreds of objections, again planning officer recommends refusal as it's still considered unsafe by the Highway experts as well as being an intrusion into the green wedge.  But this time the planning committee approves it.  Where's the sense?  Where's the consistency?  Where are SBC policies?

Hence the petition.  Hence the fact that although the NPPF is not perfect and does need reform, the campaigners also want SBC to look at itself, look at how it makes decisions, and learn some lessons.  Thanks to the democratic process they're being forced to do that.  2500 people have demanded that the debate be held.  Now it's up to their elected representatives to listen.

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