Planning in Wales: Why it’s time to put communities, not professional interests, first

Housing during construction in Cardiff. Picture by Jon Candy (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Ian Johnson

Student flats. Social housing. New greenfield estates and second homes.

Planning in Wales is controversial.

Ahead of Cardiff City Council’s Annual General Meeting later this month, Cardiff Civic Society and Undod have called for a free-vote on the Planning Committee Chair or for an independent chair to be appointed.

Both proposals, however laudable, are scratching the surface.

The Welsh Government is in charge of planning in Wales, through a framework which includes legislation, Planning Policy Wales, Technical Advice Notes and guidance circulars.

Wales’ 25 Local Planning Authorities (the 22 local authorities and three national parks) are obliged to implement this at a local level, developing their own documents, including Local Development Plans and supplementary planning guidance.

Each day, hundreds of minor planning applications are agreed by officers in planning departments up and down Wales through their delegated powers. Only a handful of applications, usually the most controversial, ever reach the public scrutiny of the Planning Committee. Welsh Government even sets expectations of timeframe for applications, in order to hurry the process along.

There is a substantial specialist industry in Wales, including architects, developers and, of course, the planning officers themselves. These are trained professionals who work alongside each other to develop proposals that meet the priorities of the tick-box planning policies.

Planning sits uncomfortably between democracy and technocratic decision making. Ultimately it lies in the hands not of our democratically elected councillors but planning process experts who have the final say over what is passed.

With no meaningful assistance, local residents are asked for their opinion on proposals. For developments over 10 units, a Pre-Application Consultation is carried out by the developer before the local planning authority even receives the application. Then the council consult, including local residents, councillors and a swathe of technical bodies internal and external to themselves. Only then might it reach the Planning Committee.

Unsurprisingly, many people are exhausted and frustrated at being asked on multiple occasions to make complicated and technical arguments in an arena where they have no experience, their arguments compared unfavourably with agents and planners who have made their professional life in this field.

By the time that a major proposal reaches the Planning Committee, its passage is largely assured. Even the process of preparing a proposal for committee means that a senior planning officer has agreed it meets the appropriate criteria.

There would need to be a serious flaw for an application to fail, otherwise it would surely be in best interests for it to pass, ‘on balance’. When a committee wants to reject an application, it is often asked for a ‘cooling off period’ until the next meeting before ratifying the decision.

If the Planning Committee do decide to reject an application (Welsh Government ask annually for information to compile a league table of ‘bad’ authorities who don’t follow their professional planning officer recommendations), then an applicant can appeal to the Planning Inspector for a final judgement.

 

Invisible

So, the democracy of our planning system – in which elected local councillors take decisions – is entirely subverted at the end by an appeals process where a technical expert on planning decides whether or not the application meets the criteria, irrespective of local feeling or democratic judgement on acceptability, or even the councillors’ own accountability for the decisions they’ve made.

If the Planning Inspector determines the application to have been rejected without good planning reasons (themselves a technical minefield), they may also choose to ask the council to meet the costs of their inquiry.

There is no similar opportunity for the community to appeal against a successful application. Once the developer has their way, then it’s final, as long as they stick to the plans, and even then…

Throughout this, there are invisible hands corralling the planning process in a certain direction, agreed upstream from whatever application is under discussion.

It is inevitable that most people pay little attention to the planning process until it affects their daily lives. That’s why it’s important for environmental, neighbourhood or language groups to raise issues and try to tilt the balance back towards the community and away from the professional interests which can range from financial gain to collegiate kudos, and who have their own common language to justify their decisions and ‘other’ their critics.

Just like the economy, our planning processes should put people and community at the front of its aims and goals. A Planning Commission would probably be required to reframe the debate, tease out the detail and ensure that communities concerns and ambitions are better reflected within the processes.

Our democratic deficit in planning should also be investigated. After all, why ask councillors for an opinion in the first place if a technocrat can over-rule them for getting it ‘wrong’?

It’s great that Cardiff Civic Society and Undod Cymru are highlighting the issues at stake, but changing the Planning Committee Chair doesn’t change the system. Next May’s Senedd elections could.

Student flats. Social housing. New greenfield estates and Second homes.

Yes, planning in Wales is controversial.

Dr Ian Johnson specialises in research, policy and public affairs in Wales, as well as being a member of the Vale of Glamorgan Council planning committee.

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