An irreverent look at some of the hot topics in planning. All commentary is given in good faith but does not constitute advice! For specific help on planning matters, please contact us.

Populism. The new way to decide planning applications?

April 28th, 2012

As many of the more observant will have noticed, on 3rd May it is time once again for that one quarter of the electorate that can be bothered to visit their local school and mark a cross next to a name that sounds vaguely familiar.

Yes, it’s local election time. That period every four years when environmentally responsible political parties litter our doorsteps with unwanted flyers festooned with cut and pasted pledges, cheesy photographs and the occasional dubious graph to show just how bad ‘the other lot’ are.

It is pretty usual at this time in the electoral cycle for local councillors to re-appear into view and to shout from the rooftops their commitment to whatever the ‘popular view’ may be on matters affecting their constituents. This year however populism is more rife than ever. In many parts of the country we are expecting major upheavals of local government, with many key councils likely to change political colour or enter into cross party alliances. The stakes are particularly high – and all this is happening in the brave new world of localism.

This is not good news for planning decision making. Planning committees in March and April have in many places become opportunities to grandstand. Woe betide the applicant with a proposal that has a strong planning merit but a degree of local opposition – in this period, the chances of approval are likely to be seriously harmed.

Too often, it seems, decisions are being made at this time in the electoral cycle on grounds of political short term expediency rather than planning merit.

It seems perverse that while the rules of purdah (Sorry, politically correct WG, rules of the pre- election period) mean that politically sensitive announcements can’t be made in the period leading up to the elections, this doesn’t stop the most politically sensitive decisions being made in the same period in the name of local votes.

We can’t halt the planning process for several months every few years. That would be impractical. There is however surely scope to find a way to filter out the applications at risk from political manipulation?

The trouble is, I am not sure that politicians would want that. These ‘final’ decisions of an administration are much like presidential pardons – often unpalatable but the price we have to pay for our system of democracy. As Winston Churchill once put it, “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.”