Is it time to rethink how planning decisions are reached?

Yesterday, Swansea city councillors refused planning permission for a modest-sized waste-to-energy incinerator in favour of maintaining the status quo and allowing 21,000 tonnes a year of non-recyclable waste to carry on being trucked 30 miles to Merthyr Tidfil to be sent to landfill instead.

Solar farms, too, get rejected by councils as do anaerobic digestion facilities that turn food and farm waste into renewable gas, shale gas 'fracking' sites and battery storage facilities - all infrastructure that we need more of in order to achieve our climate change, energy security and sustainability goals as a nation.

The common thread that connects these various types of development (and others, like housing and roads) is that the decisions on whether or not to grant planning permission are made by elected representatives - councillors at city, borough and county level.

It is not uncommon to find council officers, the experts employed to assess planning applications, recommending approval - only for inexpert councillors to refuse them in committee.

There’s a yawning gap between qualified planning professionals and the councillors that have the final say and it goes beyond the difference in knowledge: it’s that councillors, because they are elected to their roles, are much easier for community groups and campaigners to influence.

Take shale gas here in Lancashire. In June 2015, local campaigners opposed to Cuadrilla’s plans admitted to having gone on a major lobbying push over the course of a weekend, visiting the homes of councillors in an effort to persuade them to refuse permission. They were successful in their efforts. In the run-up to the subsequent county elections, campaigners made it clear that they would not vote for councillors that favoured fracking, with the obvious aim of frightening them into thinking they could lose their seats.

And that’s the problem.

People become councillors because they want to make things better for their communities, but they can’t keep doing so if they can’t get re-elected. Campaigners know this and use it as a pressure point.

The trouble is, locally made decisions are better for everyone. Nobody - whether that’s developers or residents and other stakeholders - wants to see decisions taken away and made centrally in Westminster.

So, what’s the alternative? Is it possible to still get locally made decisions but without undue pressure on political decision-makers that is so often a feature of modern planning applications?

Let local experts decide

We believe that there’s a sensible middle way, that still means planning decisions get made locally but that removes the potential for political pressure.

It involves letting local, council-employed planning officers decide ALL planning applications. They are, after all, the real experts that understand local and national planning policy and what is and isn’t a material planning consideration. But living and working locally would mean that they are still connected to the area too.

Community groups and other stakeholders would still be consulted and able to submit representations in the normal way, and there could be a mechanism for ensuring that councillors in affected wards and divisions still have a powerful say - they just wouldn’t have the final say. And, in the case of particularly large or contentious applications, the final decision could require the approval of the relevant council’s chief executive.

Changing the way planning decisions are made like this would speed-up the process for the benefit of everyone involved (delays are expensive for developers but can also be stressful for residents) and lead to better overall decision-making.

Better still, planning law already permits it under the provisions for Delegated Powers of Authority - although this is presently only really used for what are seen as modest and straightforward planning applications.

The question is: do Ministers have the guts to overhaul the way planning decisions are made?