Letter - Community groups find planning laws tough going

Residents in our communities are in despair at the way the public planning consultation process is run by Wakefield MDC.

On the letters page of April 5, Mr Thomson, the council’s service director, pointed out “that the local planning framework (LDF) had been examined and found to be sound by an independent inspector”. Whilst the planning inspectorate is supposedly there to give independent advice, it must be remembered that it is an executive agency of the Government and so the question of its independence must be considered. The role of planning inspectors is merely to assess whether an LDF been prepared in accordance with the Duty to Cooperate, legal and procedural requirements, and whether it is sound. They do not take the views of local communities into account and they base their judgements only on material made available to them by planners. They are not prescriptive, ie they do not consider what may have been omitted.

The recent permissions for wind turbines at Woolley is a case in point. As mentioned on March 29, these have now been quashed. Despite the advice of the Government Ministers, the locations for wind farms and the criteria for choosing suitable locations, are not included in the LDF. Speculative applications from developers are instead being actively encouraged by planners and the consequences of the arbitrary decisions by district councillors are inevitably leading to expensive appeals by developers or judicial reviews by residents. The costs of losing either are borne by the Council tax payers.

Planners haven’t moved with the times and don’t seem to understand that this Government is devolving decisions onto local neighbourhood groups. I am really not surprised they are finding it hard to make decisions: they are failing to adequately consult residents affected, collect local background information and evidence, contact statutory bodies, or follow ministerial advice. It seems they prefer instead to rely on their own subjective opinions and ‘gut instincts’.

The Rt Hon Greg Clark MP) sets out the fundamental planning principles in the foreword to the National Planning Policy Framework. In regard to consultation he writes:

“Planning must be a creative exercise in finding ways to enhance and improve the places in which we live our lives. This should be a collective enterprise. Yet, in recent years, planning has tended to exclude, rather than include, people and communities. In part, this has been a result of targets being imposed, and decisions taken, by bodies remote from them. Dismantling the unaccountable regional apparatus and introducing neighbourhood planning addresses this”.

The housing targets for WMDC, imposed by the planners, are set at ridiculous and unsustainable levels. There is an ambition to build 1,920 homes per year – a number which is way above that set out in the core strategy 2008 to 2017 and more appropriate to regional targets than local needs. The number of greenfield sites being earmarked for housing developments is particularly disturbing – a probable result of cherry picking by developers. The planners should be encouraging developers to build on brownfield sites, or previously developed sites instead of squandering scarce and valued green belt land.

I would just like to add one further point on public consultation. The Statement of Community Involvement in the Wakefield LDF sets out two separate processes for community involvement in planning decisions – one for large/contentious developments and the other for general developments. The Council’s usual approach is to apply the latter, much weaker and less rigorous, consultation process to developments – however contentious they might be. This lacks amongst things an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and a pre-application discussion with local community groups (i.e. the opportunity to discuss applications prior to submission). Other local authorities seem much more willing to apply the former(more rigorous) method to developments like those such as the recent housing project at Durkar and the wind turbine project at Woolley. I would like to know why WMDC has chosen a different stance.

Councillors, as the elected representatives of the local residents, should be the guiding light and at the forefront of the planning process but in truth planning officers run the show. The fact that local ward members, who are in the best position to assess the effects of a development at first hand, are thereby precluded from voting is an obvious flaw in the system. They are the very ones who should be holding the officers to account.

Another obvious flaw is the fact that a case officer’s report is only available a few days before a hearing and there is insufficient time for objectors to instruct legal advisers or for non ward members to analyse the contents. Suggesting that it is a ‘good thing’ for members of the planning committee to have no preconceived ideas and no prior knowledge of an application, and expecting them to form an opinion as a result of a five minute presentation on a complex issue by an applicant and an objector, just reduces the whole planning process to farce.

Express readers if you too, are disillusioned and unhappy how planning is being presided over, contact and let your local MP know.

J M Donlon

Durkar Low Lane