Wednesday, 18 February 2015

6 OUT OF 10

The more I hear about the proposed Planning (Wales) Bill the less I like it. The draft bill has been proceeding through various stages for a while, in its present form, it will actually take decisions further away from communities and further erode the democratic accountability of decision-making over land use in our country. Now none of this should surprise anyone, Labour in Wales at various levels of government have over the years long seen people as part of the problem when it comes to planning.

In essence the Labour in Wales Government has aimed to makes it more difficult for local communities when it comes to trying to stop developers building on green spaces. It was originally suggested that its Planning Bill would stop "vexatious" bids to register greens intended, it claimed, simply to frustrate development. Applications for village greens must show people have had a right to use the site in question for at least 20 years.

Affordable Housing?
The reality of the current relationship between local and central government is that when it comes to housing developments those members of the public who question or challenge planning decisions are seen as part of the problem. The Labour in Wales Welsh Government has missed a real opportunity to actually deliver a modern planning system to meet the needs of the people of Wales in the 21st century.
Plaid is right to call for root and branch reform of our planning system to strengthen local voices. That probably does not suit the labour in Wales Government who’s current Government Bill looks to be enshrining a top-down regime that will take decisions one step further away from the decisions that affect them.
Our planning system, along with our pretty much nineteenth century local government setup is not designed to coexist with devolution or for that matter to deliver planning decisions with real and lasting benefits for local people and local communities. There is a real need for root and branch reform and reorganisation of our planning system; the Welsh Government’s simply decided to tinker and tweak with existing outdated legislation rather than reform it.
The current Bill has proposed a system where a National Development Framework sets the parameters for Regional Development Plans, which in turn set the parameters for Local Development Plans. This will create a top-down approach, which runs contrary to any notions that our communities should have a stronger say in planning decisions that will directly affect them.
It would be more democratic, if even at this late stage, the Labour in Wales Welsh Government began its bill again. Starting with the simple idea that the development aspirations of our communities should be the primary building blocks of our planning system.
The introduction of unelected and effectively unaccountable members to the Strategic Development Panels must be unacceptable. While there is a need for a wide range of different voices be heard it would be both sensible and democratic for any co-opted members not have voting rights.
What should be more disturbing is that current legislation as is, contains some 65 examples of Ministers being empowered to make subordinate legislation, which will be afforded significantly less scrutiny. The legislation is effectively a government power grab with the Minister literally picking and choosing powers without any clarity as to how he intends to use them, if at all.
This potentially sets a dangerous precedent for increasingly unaccountable governance and an even more unresponsive planning system. The bill includes the creation of a National Development Framework, which would replace the deeply flawed but at least nominally publically accountable Wales Spatial Plan, which at least periodically required the actual endorsement of the National Assembly.
Whether Wales needs new strategic development plans at present is open to question? Especially as there is about to be a significant (and perhaps more ominously) a largely Labour in Wales driven reorganisation of our local government, which will by default create larger planning authorities.
Is there a need for Strategic Development Plans, as the Local Government reorganisation will create much larger planning authorities, which will inevitably take on more of a regional and strategic roll? There is a need for development planning to take place on more of a regional basis but this could be dealt with joint Local Development Plans rather than another whole new tier of Development Plans.
What is not being addressed is the observed reality that the current planning system remains too focused on railroading through large housing developments that often bring little real benefits for local people and local communities and often fail to resolve real and pressing local housing needs. We need a fundamental change in planning culture to encourage appropriate and sustainable smaller scale housing developments, which are based on good design and actively promote energy efficiency and good environmental standards.

An opportunity to address the shortage of affordable housing, to encourage more small-scale renewable energy projects, and to actively support small businesses in relation to the Planning Bill has clearly been missed.  It is time to start the process of actually addressing the flawed LDP (Local Development Plan) system, which does not deliver for local communities and fails to serve our national interests.

Our planning system and planning processes are too slow, too bureaucratic and too unresponsive to real local needs and local opinions. The current system is based on the post-war Town and Country Planning Act from 1947 and is simply outdated; our country needs a modern planning system that meets the needs of modern Welsh society. In line with the realities of devolution our country needs an independent Planning inspectorate for Wales as the old single planning inspectorate for England and Wales is increasingly unsustainable.

Local democracy on a county borough level has been undermined, as developers (and here we are not just talking about housing) simply appear to carry on appealing until they get their way or get their development retrospectively approved at a higher level. Local government officers will (and do) advise local councillors not to turn down developments (whether grounds are reasonable or not) because the developers will simply appeal until the cows come home and local government just does not have the finances to cope with this situation.

The Labour in Wales Welsh Government in Cardiff favour changing the planning rules in Wales to ‘tilt the balance in favour of economic growth over the environment and social factors’. This is something that appears to be aimed quite specifically at overturning those few occasions when our Local Authorities have rejected some developments (often at the behest of local residents) rather than putting economic needs ahead of economic and environmental benefits.

KALM Rally in Abergavenny
The proposed Planning Bill is bad news for those residents of south Monmouthshire, and the residents of Torfaen, who fought the plan and the good citizens of Abergavenny who fought to retain the livestock market. Not to mention the concerned residents of Cardiff and Carmarthen who have real worries about the impact of over large housing developments or the residents of Holyhead who opposed a planned new marina development and people who are genuinely concerned about how their communities develop.
The bottom line is that over the years our communities have been increasingly ill served by the planning system, by our local authorities (and the system of Unitary Development Plans) and more recently by our own Government in Cardiff. We need a planning system that takes account of local housing needs, the environment and looks sustainability at the whole of our country and above all it needs sit firmly within local democratic accountable local authorities which are elected by STV. 

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