As we all know, the planning system shapes what development can happen, where. Since the passing of the Town & Country Planning Act in 1947, key development decisions are taken by elected representatives rather than private individuals; specifically with a view to ensuring an ultimately democratic process.
Balancing planning decisions with local democracy
Here, planning decisions are based on balancing competing interests and making an informed judgement against local and national policy frameworks in the wider public interest; even where there is a predisposition in favour of one side of the argument or the other.
However, the risk of controversy and conflict is heightened by such a system, which – in the wholly appropriate effort to ensure that outcomes are as democratic as possible – invites public opinion before taking final decisions.
The start of a local war
But what happens when allegedly informed residents, further armed with assumption, speculation, and a deep war chest, take it upon themselves to interject with wholly subjective, often self-interested views into an application that they, and other, reassuringly like-minded agitators deem unacceptable?
Let us take, for example, a small village. Having developed as a linear settlement before the Norman Conquest, this settlement has since been subject to extensive 20th and 21st century infill development; predominantly in the form of modest residential estates along its principal historic route.
In light of recent, fairly significant development within the actual core of this historic village, extensive and aggressive opposition to proposals to develop an isolated structure – in a demonstrably local vernacular – on its outskirts, is therefore highly questionable.
A controversial application
Here, a local business, providing childcare to residents in and around the area and therefore offering considerable public benefit, submitted an application to construct new premises, before being put definitively through their paces as a result of extensive local uproar.
Given the unduly controversial nature of proposals, the application was not determined by officers under delegated powers, but at committee and, on planning balance, permission was granted. However, the democratic process this evidenced was seemingly not enough.
The cost of overcoming objections
Further hurdles loomed when the Parish Council launched a crowdfunding campaign in order to take the Local Planning Authority to the High Court and judicial review for their decision. Fortunately, this was quashed, and the original permission remains in place.
Despite this success, significant concern remains. In a system that strives for transparency -the full, sorry saga is not set out here – where does this leave qualified professionals and businesses that have had both time and money wasted at the hands of interested parties and their objections?
Fairness, transparency and democracy
It would seem that planning does not merely entail making fair and transparent decisions based solely upon planning considerations, but must also be expected to strike a balance between qualified decision makers and the inevitable chatter of those with an excess of time, money and clear disdain for democratic planning.
It would nevertheless appear heartening that – in the face of those who can afford to shout loudest, longest – democracy will nevertheless win out; but at what cost?