Monday 19 September 2011

Tweaking the rules

The Executive Board of Carmarthenshire County Council is meeting today to "consider" a proposal to make some changes to planning procedures. In reality, what this means is that the proposals will be passed, probably without any discussion, before being presented for ratification by the full council in due course.

The proposed new procedures can be seen here. For the most part, they are pretty unremarkable and uncontroversial, but let's hope that some of the more alert and diligent councillors take the time to read them and question the proposed delegation of yet more powers from the authority's elected representatives to the unelected officers.

It is noticeable that every time Carmarthenshire decides to change its constitution and procedures, the net effect is always to transfer powers to the chief executive and his officers; and it invariably involves a loss of democratic accountability and a further loss of transparency. It's also odd, isn't it, how often the council seems to feel it necessary to change its constitution, which if it were a child, would not be long out of nappies. In most countries (except for those going through revolutions, coups and regime change), settled public institutions and even societies such as the Teifi Trout Fishing Association, constitutional change is a relatively rare thing and something not undertaken lightly. In Carmarthenshire, they seem to average several a year, and they are always passed, usually without comment, probably because so few councillors understand them or even take the time to read through the tedious clauses.

But I digress. The latest change involves a clearer distinction between major and minor planning applications. Minor applications are those which can be decided by the planning officers alone, while major applications are put before the planning committee.

Minor applications under this definition range from a minor change of use or a small extension to a bungalow, up to buildings of 1,000 square metres, or developments of less than 1 hectare, or housing developments of more than 10 houses. The range is huge.

There are safeguards built in. Applications which attract more than 5 objections or where a local member requests consideration by the committee within a defined timescale will, the proposal says, be treated as major applications. But if an application has previously been considered and approved in outline by the committee, it will become a "minor application" if the only representations received are what the planning officers consider to be from "persistent" objectors who raise no new objections considered, by the planning officers, to be material planning matters.

There are several reasons to be concerned about this.

  • One hectare, 10 houses and 1,000 square metres are pretty major developments in many contexts. Building 10 houses in a hamlet with, say, 10 existing houses for example. A supermarket in a small town or village which keeps to 999 square metres on 0.99 of a hectare.
  • Quite a few people in Carmarthenshire have had the misfortune to elect an Independent councillor who for reasons best known to him or her will support some applications against the wishes and interests of the wider community. The councillor may simply decide not to flag a development as major in some circumstances.
  • Again and again we see planning applications going ahead which local residents were often blissfully unaware of because they ignored or did not see the bit of paper on a gatepost. Or because like nearly everybody with a will to live, they skipped the boring pages of small type at the back of the local paper which the council uses to notify the public of road closures, footpath diversions, etc. Or because many people don't know how to write a letter to the planning officers, are afraid to stick their heads above the parapet and upset some local bigwig, or are just too lazy and hope someone else will do it.
  • In Ceredigion, where the planning committee often shows a bit of backbone, councillors have repeatedly told the officers to get lost when it comes to attempts to delegate powers. They have told them on several occasions, for example, that they wish to be consulted on planning applications even after outline planning has been granted. It is absolutely right that they should do so, because having given an initial green light to a plan which may have far reaching consequences for other people, they recognise that they have a moral obligation to follow the thing through rather than surrender all further decision making to officers.
There is a growing public consensus that the planning system in Wales needs radical reform, although the Welsh Government appears to be unconvinced of the need to do anything. But while that debate about the future is stalled, Carmarthenshire is busy tweaking the rules to take us further away from an open, fair and democratic planning system.

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