72% of councillors think planning system is undemocratic

Laura Edgar

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Councillors in England think that the planning system works in the interests of developers over councils and local communities, according to new survey.

The survey of 1,200 ward councillors in England was carried out by think tank Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) and commissioned by the National Trust.

According to the findings, 72 per cent of councillors think that the planning system is too weighted in favour of developers, at the expense of local communities.

In addition, half of those asked suggested that sites that are not in line with the local plan are being approved for housing, while the same percentage think planning departments are not adequately resourced. 36 per cent said that it is adequately resourced.

Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive at the LGiU, said: “The planning system is one of the fundamental pillars of local democracy, allowing communities to help shape the physical structure of the places they live. Councillors are the most important link between communities and that system. Our survey with the National Trust shows that many councillors feel that this democratic tool is at risk of being undermined.”

Other key statistics from the survey include:

•    63 per cent of respondents strongly agreed or agreed with the statement: “The current planning system is too top-down”.
•    58 per cent disagreed with the statement: “It is easy for residents in my ward to influence the planning process”.
•    58 per cent of councillors with green belt in their area think that their council will allocate green belt land for housing in the next five years.
•    18 per cent think design has improved since the National Planning Policy Framework was published.
•    12 per cent think the loosening of planning restrictions has had a positive effect.

Ingrid Samuel, historic environment director at the National Trust, said it is worrying that councillors feel the NPPF hasn’t delivered the localism that was promised.

“If ministers are serious about local plans being at the heart of the planning system, then they should invest in council planning teams and use the housing white paper to give them the tools to deliver good quality housing in the right places.”

With the housing white paper due later this month, the LGiU and the National Trust said there are concerns that matter could be made worse if it sets out “rigid” housing numbers for local plans which don’t take account of local factors as the green belt and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The organisations hope the government will take a number of steeps to improve the confidence councillors have in the planning system, including:

•    More resources for local planning authorities to help get local plans in place
•    A smart approach to meeting housing need that allows councils to recognise local constraints and focuses development in the most appropriate areas.

Commenting on resourcing, Richard Blyth, head of policy at the RTPI, said councillors are right to think planning departments are not adequately resourced.

“Our research from the North West of England shows that there have been average cuts in planning staff of more than 30 per cent in local planning authorities over the past five years. We have consistently called on government to properly resource planning departments so that they can help deliver the houses and economic growth this country needs. We would urge the government to address this issue in the housing white paper.”

Blyth added that through its politicians in planning network, the RTPI supports councillors by providing them with practical tools and skills to navigate the planning system.

"We encourage any councillors with an interest in planning to get in touch to see how we can support them in their planning related work.”

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