Developing nicely

I protest! In fact I protest often. Because planning applications can ruin peoples’ lives yet planning law is often on the side of the developer. More often than not, ordinary local people find they are David fighting Goliath when it comes to fighting an application near them.

Just recently, despite my MP protests, councillors’ protests, residents’ protests and a campaign group’s protests, Goliath won again – and a concrete factory on will be built on Cranford Way, in the middle of a residential area with narrow streets and lots of schools. Just the place for HGVs to thunder through daily – not!

One thing the case highlights is the way the rules favour developers. The presumption is in favour of development and the rules reflect this. Just one example – if the developer is ruled against by a council – they can appeal. But if the council rules in favour of the developer – no-one opposed to the development can appeal. Where’s the fairness in that? And developers have fancy lawyers and seemingly endless money; if they fail on one application they come back with another.

In the case of the concrete factory, the council rejected the application but then on appeal Her Majesty’s Inspector decided that the noise, pollution and traffic wouldn’t be too bad after all – and overturned the local council’s decision.

Now, I have no doubt that many, many planning inspectors to an excellent job. But there is fundamentally something worrying about a process where the final decision is made by someone who doesn’t have to live with the results – and indeed whose future career and prospects only very slightly hinge on how good or bad their decisions turn out to be down the road. That isn’t a system that is likely to bring the best results. For all the flaws of councils and councillors on occasions, they know that if they make a decision and get it wrong, the angry public can – and often do – kick them out. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in democratic accountability – because that is what gives people the most say and power over their own lives and communities.

And outside of a consultation every decade or so on the local council’s Unitary Development Plan (which zones areas) there is no local say on what gets built if a site is available. It’s all left to the developers who, let us face it, are not necessarily working for the good of the community.

And it isn’t just about concrete factories! We are in desperate need of more housing. Mayor Livingstone has set targets for each borough. But his name is being used in vain in two ways. Firstly – luxury housing crammed into impossible sites which damage the surrounding settings and are nothing to do with the Mayor’s London plan and the need for affordable social housing. Secondly – we get high rise, poorly designed, lowest common denominator developer housing foisted on areas of deprivation. Cheap, shoddy housing is then defended on the grounds, "but it is needed". But that is no excuse for such poor quality.

Next week I will be giving evidence to a local planning enquiry to support local people against such a case – another thoughtless, ugly, anonymous block. It will be the third planning enquiry I have appeared at since becoming MP only just over a year ago. If these developments were well-designed and attractive they would not run into the sort of hail of protest that regularly greets them and they would not blight the built environment nor the aspirations of the people living there for decades to come. We do need housing – but we don’t need built-in future deprivation.

Developers won’t like me for this – but I think they get away with murder. Perhaps we need to introduce a developers’ report card and publish it. Let’s interview the tenants of their buildings, one, two and five and ten years after they move in. Let’s score just how pleasant and well-designed their buildings actually are to live in – and publish it, and let the scores be considered when future permission is given or refused. And let’s have a review of Planning Enquiry decisions that examines whether developments that get the go ahead with conditions attached have those conditions enforced – and if they do not – then lets make the Government liable for the costs of enforcement – not the Council who rejected the original decision. And let’s have a right of appeal for ordinary people against the granting of permission!