“Open Source”? – an Open Question

bricks2As well as being a Labour councillor for Blackheath Westcombe ward I have, since 2006, chaired the council’s planning board (the rather grand name for the planning committee – not my idea!). I also chair two of the council’s three area committees which deal with smaller applications – the planning board being reserved for larger developments.

Planning committees are a useful testing ground for any councillor, as they normally attract more members of the public than any other kinds of council meeting. In Greenwich, any application that has two or more objections, or is not refused by staff in the planning department as being contrary to policy, comes to an area planning committee for decision.

Area planning committees are multi-party and are not subject to a political whip. Councillors do not vote on party lines but on the basis of planning law. The committees meet monthly, make their decisions in public, and any objectors are allowed to speak for up to three minutes before councillors reach a decision on each application.

Of course the planning process, and these area committee meetings, can be slow and time-consuming – democracy always is. Sometimes planning applicants see it all as too bureaucratic. But on the whole, people who come into contact with the process like it, and even if the committee does not agree with their views, in most cases they feel they have had a fair hearing.

So I am instinctively wary of any politicians who claim that the current planning system is broken and needs major reform.

The Conservative Party has just published a “Policy Green Paper” on Planning, rather oddly entitled “Open Source Planning”. It argues that planning policy should be made more flexible, or “Open Source”, like computer software: as if Planning Law was first invented in someone’s garage in California, presumably. As well as some familiar polices, such as abolishing regional planning strategies (a bit difficult in London, where nearly everyone agrees that the Mayor should retain some London-wide planning powers), there are some unexpected new ones.

For example, the Conservative’s approach to changes of use of existing buildings.

In the last two weeks I have had a deluge of emails about plans to convert a former off-license on Stratheden Parade into a takeaway. Under the council’s current policies, units can be changed from takeaways or restaurants back into shops without the need for planning permission, but for sensible reasons planning permission is needed the other way around, to change a shop into a restaurant or takeaway. The council also has policies in place to prevent there being too many takeaways, restaurants, or other non-retail uses in any given area.

The Conservatives seem to see all this as unnecessary bureaucracy, arguing in their Green paper that

“We will amend the Use Classes Order so that people can freely (i.e. without planning permission) change the use of buildings within a range allowed by the local community in its local plan. We will retain the current categorisation of uses (and start with an explicit assumption that all current approved existing uses are legitimate), but allow councils to specify in their local plans the kinds of use they are content to permit for the buildings and land in each given part of their area.”

The paper continues:

“We anticipate that most local communities will take the opportunity offered by such Flexible Zoning to adopt a significantly more relaxed approach to changes of use of existing buildings. For instance, they might say that buildings within a particular area can be used for any purpose except general industrial use, or that a street can be used for any kind of retail or service provision.”

If such an approach was made mandatory, local councils could be powerless to stop changes of use from shop to takeaway, and no planning application would even be required. Far from giving more power to local communities and their elected councillors, the Tory proposals would take power and responsibility away.

Local MP Nick Raynsford has given his own verdict on this green paper in the Local Government Chronicle (Interest declared: I work part-time in Nick Raynsford’s Westminster office).

Suddenly, the current planning system – which is far from perfect of course – doesn’t seem so bad after all.

 

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2 Responses to “Open Source”? – an Open Question

  1. Paul Webbewood says:

    Alex

    Last year it was proposed to change Greenwicgh Council’s constitution so as to require ten objections, rather than two, to bring an application before a planning committee. This proposal was dropped after loud complaints from opposition councillors and concerned local residents.

    Will you give a pledge that, if reelected, you will oppose any further attempts to raise the threshhold?

    • Alex Grant says:

      Dear Paul

      Thanks for your comment on the BW Labour site. If I am re-elected in May I will certainly continue to argue that the planning process must be as transparent and inclusive as possible. I beleive the current threshold of two objections for an applicaiton to come to committee gets the balance right, and any increase in the threshold would need to be hand-in-hand with other changes, for example to better publicise the ability of councillors to “call in ” applicasitons that have fewer than two objectiosn to come to committee.

      However, as you know councillors of all parties decided not to agree officers’ plans to increase the threshold last year. There are no current plans to look again at this.

      Alex

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