The Government’s White Paper on Planning Reform

There are many issues of concern in the Government’s proposed reform of the planning system and many of its proposals will greatly reduce the ability of local residents to participate in decisions about developments in their area. For instance:

The approval of new development in growth zones will shift to the plan-making stage. The traditional process of politicians deciding planning applications with opportunities for the public to make representations is effectively at an end.

The White Paper suggests that people’s right to be heard in person will be changed. The paper states that inspectors will now have discretion as to what form an objector’s representations might take. Under paragraph 2.53 the paper goes even further and suggests any form of ‘right to be heard’ might be removed.  The right to be heard at Section 20 of the 2004 Planning Act is the only clear civil right that exists in the planning process for the individual citizen. The right includes the important phrase ‘in person’ in order to allow an individual to appear in front of an inspector and exercise other opportunities to cross-examine witnesses.  So, the opportunity to appear at a public inquiry has been replaced with the opportunity for an inspector to have a telephone conversation with you, or ask for further written comments if they choose to do so.

The White Paper does not provide a single new right for community participation or a single new opportunity for a democratic moment in the plan-making process but rather reduces both rights and opportunities to participate. The only potential additional opportunity comes from the White Paper’s belief that digitising information will encourage community participation.  Digital information can potentially lead to more openness and will hopefully make planning more accessible, but it does nothing on its own to give communities more control over their future

For Bath, there is an additional concern a little-noticed comment about “exploring whether suitably experience architectural specialists can have earned autonomy from routine listed building consents.” This clearly opens the system to abuse as it leaves open such questions as:

What criteria will be used to decide if autonomy has been earned?

Who will judge whether these criteria have been met and continue to be met once autonomy has been “earned”?

What qualifies as “routine”?