The price of democracy

Cllr Jas Athwal Leader Redbridge LBC

Cllr Jas Athwal
Leader Redbridge LBC

I see from the Guardian (the national leftie one and not the Banbury leftie one) that Cllr Jas Athwal (pictured left) and the Leader of the London Borough of Redbridge has proudly trumpeted his removal of much of the democratic element of planning in his borough.  He apparently claims “unlike councillors, planners have the skills and experience to make these decisions. It’s not undemocratic – it’s giving power to those most qualified“.

Well, pardon me, Cllr Athwal but this has already happened here in North Oxfordshire, thanks to a number of different policy changes and it is not good for local democracy or for the confidence of electors that they can have any control over their environment.

Planning impacts on communities in a number of ways, some positive, some negative.  If people cannot see the innate logic and fairness of decisions and if they are not made in a transparent manner, confidence will be lost and the whole country will be the worse as a result.

My first problem with Cllr Athwal’s view is that planning officers feel obliged to follow the latest fashion in planning practice, often heavily influenced by political correctness and largely devoid of common sense.  For example, here in Cherwell, they have absolutely no interest in the style of a housing estate being imposed on a local village and do not understand the fury of villagers when its architecture totally fails to reflect the organic development of the village since the Domesday Book.  The same planners blindly accept the nostrum that the car should be discouraged and that walking and cycling should be encouraged.  They therefore allow inadequate parking on new estates but require expensive cycle racks and paths and footpaths that a tiny minority will use, particularly given the need for modern families to combine the school run with shopping and getting to the station – only feasible in many areas by car.

My next problem with Cllr Athwal’s view is that so much of a local council’s planning power has been emasculated by national government with the new planning regime and the requirement for a five-year land supply.  Developers are laughing all the way to the bank here in Cherwell because they can currently get just about any planning application through on appeal because the local council is chasing an ever-growing housing supply need fuelled by the success of the south-east economy and our proximity to London, Birmingham and Milton Keynes.  Electors are getting more and more frustrated as they realise the scale of this emasculation.

My final concern is for all councillors who worked hard to get themselves elected and then have to explain to an already sceptical public why so may horrible, badly designed estates of ghastly little tick-tick boxes are being imposed on their villages.  They bring social problems bcause low-cost housing quotas that fail to reflect reality bring single mothers onto rural estates with little or no local employment and very poor transport links to the nearest town.  They also bring other forms of social problem with houses that are too small for decent family living; where there is no room to sit round a table for a meal; where there is inadequate storage in the house, forcing people to store their growing material possessions in the garage which was too small to house a four-by-four anyway and with deliberately inadequate parking for cars.

Cllr Athwal, our planning system is a shambles but, without the input of people who regularly meet and listen to local voters, planning officers will continue to live in their cocooned worlds based on the latest planning fads and political correctness and will continue to inflict on the rest of us the slums of tomorrow.

If I could introduce one reform into planning law, it would be to require planning officers to live in the houses they have caused to be approved because I think they would soon get a taste of reality.

About Keith R Mitchell CBE

Qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 1967. Pursued a successful career in financial training and publishing until selling his interests in 1990. Elected a County Councillor for the Bloxham Division in 1989. Leader of Oxfordshire County Council 5 November 2001 to 15 May 2012. Chairman of the South East England Regional Planning Committee July 2002 to July 2005. Chairman of the South East England Regional Assembly July 2005 to July 2008. In HM the Queen’s 2007 Birthday Honours, appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in recognition of services to local government.
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