What use politicians
Press Q&A produced for the Jorvi
The Second Battle of Fulford
Planning & flooding along Germany Beck
News from 1066
Metal finds update
CONFIRMING THE SITE
David Aaronovitch BBC
A lucky find
Beginners Guide to Public Planni
Planning - Whose thinking big
York City Planning documents online
The Final Report
Kindle edition of Finding Fulford is now available
The Fulford Tapestry
Beginners Guide to Public Planning Inquiries.
Planning is a world where neither the words nor the actions are quite what they seem.
When there is a plane or train crash, there is an inquiry. The facts are
examined, research undertaken, experts consulted and a report produced. The aim
is to find out what went wrong and try and prevent it going wrong in the future.
With planning inquiries, they do things differently. In the wonderful world of
property, words can have very different meanings. Here there is definitely no
inquiring and precious little planning.
So the planning inquiry that opened in York recently will not be investigating
why the developers have chosen to build an access road along the vital drain
carved out by the last ice age to drain the hinterland. Nor will questions be
asked about how a plan was devised to spill the traffic from 750 houses onto a
road that is already deemed to be over capacity. No questions will be asked to
shed some light on why the necessary archaeology to investigate a lost
battlefield of 1066 was not carried out. All these question might expose the
deficiencies of the developer-led ‘planning’ process and maybe lead to some
reform but that is not the business of a planning inquiry.
Instead, this ‘inquiry’ will gather all the information that should have been
presented to the local authority before it determined the applications. The
‘inquiry’ will run an abbreviated version of the normal planning process,
condensing the work of years into a few weeks. This is good news for those who
are styled ‘developers’ but bad new for the community.
A planning inquiry removes from the local authority the right to decide an
application. The power to decide the planning application is ‘reserved’ instead
to the relevant Secretary of State, who is advised by the appointed inspector.
Quite why those supporting the development need all the lawyers to discuss a
planning matters is not explained by the Planning Inspectorate except to say
that an inquiry is a ‘quasi judicial’ process. The normal planning process at
most town halls manages quite well without QCs. Nevertheless, to help keep the
process on course, the developers have deployed a strong legal team.
In an ideal world, there would be an equally strong defence team of lawyers and
experts to provide a check on the case being presented by the developers. That
is the way our system is justice is supposed to work. But just as there is no
‘inquiry’, there is not a lot of ‘public’ about this procedure. This unequal
struggle pits the legal teams and experts from an alliance of developers and the
local authority against an assortment of residents and small groups plus, of
course, the Green Party.
Is it proper that there is no formal representation of the community? Since it
was central government that decided to call this inquiry to examine a long list
of matters that were deemed to be of public interest, it is strange that no
assistance is given to those who can enliven the debate. Even if you choose to
dismiss all those opposing the proposed developments as NIMBYs or ‘the usual
suspects’, there is a glaring inequity in the process that pits professional
planning teams against some pensioners and others taking time off work. Not that
one should under-estimate the pensioners. Their long memories have done a
magnificent job highlighting the way the housing demand figures have be
massaged. It is very stressful. Tragically, one of the community stalwarts
collapsed and died after presenting their case.
In the middle sits the poor inspector, all alone without even a note-taker or
tape-recorder to assist.
The asymmetry between the two sides is very much a part of the planning process.
The developers are allowed to appeal if their application is turned down. That
option is not open to objectors.
So, following this logic, it is hardly worthwhile for the local authority to go
through the motions of the planning system because if they do turn it down, the
developer will appeal. The last figures from the late ODPM indicate that of the
20% of applications that are turned down, 65% are appealed by the applicants.
What makes York doubly interesting is that the city went through all the motions
then approved the application - But it was the Secretary of State who called in
the plans and ordered the public inquiry. Quite whether this was pre-ordained is
known only to the inner brotherhood of planners but to all those who gave up so
much of their time to try and make the primary planning process work, the whole
process seems very strange especially when a different and much more detailed
plan is presented at the inquiry. Why were the details, long requested by
opponents, not provided to the planning department? The Inquiry will not be
The local authority is therefore in an odd position with large-scale
developments. Turn down the application and the developer will probably appeal
with the possible risk of costs and compensation against the authority. Much
easier to pass the application and let the inspector play ‘piggy-in-the-middle’.
That is what the City of York seems to have done.
It makes a lot of sense for a planning authority to duck its planning
responsibilities, especially in a target-driven culture where complex
developments can affect their central government grant.
This apparent abuse of process extends to the way planners use the English
language. A strange use of words pervades the planning process. The results can
be quite amusing. It was a bit of a shock when the very first call at the
inquiry was for our ‘statements of appearance’. There was some uneasy shuffling
of sandals and tucking in of shirts among the motley collection of opponent. But
we needn’t have worried. The inspector was not about to lay down a dress-code
which was superfluous for the dark-suited proponents of the developments. All
the inspector wanted was to know who we would be calling as witnesses.
Those wanting to take part had to wrestle with the language of inquiries to earn
the right to appear at the inquiry. We each had to produce a ‘proof of
evidence’. This is supposed to tell everybody what you are going to talk about.
But then there are the follow-up rebuttals which are a thinly disguised ploy to
introduce more evidence. It is quite a game, actually a bit like playing poker.
There is a lot of bluff and the strongest hand does not automatically win the
pot. You need a lot of confidence and the looser is always the trees that are
transformed into paper.
You can be forgiven for not being able to guess what ‘sequential testing’ has to
do with planning. It is at the very heart of this inquiry. The planning process
might be more transparent if the words used were a little clearer. The issue at
stake in sequential testing is the order in which the many sites should be made
available. Should the developers take big chunks of the remaining green land
enclosed by the ‘black belt’ of the ring road? Or should the area of the old
railway yards right in the heart of the city be developed first to provide
thousands of homes?
Planning is also a misnomer for what goes on inside the town-halls. The job of
the overworked officials is to administer the complex and conflicting
requirements set out in volumes of guidance and try to negotiate something that
is acceptable. It works quite well for house extensions although the applicants
are forced to jump through many hoops to obtain approval. Of nearly a quarter of
a million ‘domestic’ applications only 10% are refused and just 17% of those who
are refused permission decide to appeal.
So inquiries don’t inquire and planners don’t plan. The real ‘planning’ is left
to commercial developers. They decide where they are going to impose their
estates. The local authority simply reacts. A gifted council officer or forceful
councillor might achieve something significant for the community in exchange for
the grant of planning permission but not very often. The natural career path for
any aspiring planner is from the town hall to private practice. Gamekeepers
often make good poachers.
The grant of planning permission is an extremely valuable gift from the
community to the developer. The community has a right to be heard and to receive
some proper compensation for any permission it grants. As with any place where
there is a lot of money to be made some unattractive practices have developed.
An inquiry is long overdue.
It is vital that something is done very quickly to return planning to the
community. In this age of the free market why are planning permissions not sold
by tender? It might be an excellent way to reduce the community charges. The
promise of all this potential income would encourage the elected officials to
release land for development. We could find more land being provided for
development. But it would be the community and not the developers who set the
The community acting through the local authority could work with land-holders to
put some proper planning back into the process of urban development since it
would be local government that would offer land to meet the local needs. It
sounds crazy, but democracy might just work.
June 2006 Chas Jones.