The new BBC2 series on Thursday evenings runs for eight weeks throughout February and March and if the first episode is anything to go by there is lots of entertainment to be had watching ‘The Planners’ in coming weeks. The show features a handful of different situations and, taking the planners’ perspective, shows how decisions are arrived at and the impact of the process on the homeowners, applicants and affected parties.

It’s great telly. It features the kind of small-town figures that are, as one Twitter observer put it, a kind of Little Britain parody of people who hold those positions. The planners themselves came across pretty well, struggling to find a balance between competing arguments, slightly up in the air over planning reform, and generally qualified, reasonable people. Applicants and objectors, as you might expect, came across at times unhinged, emotional and hopelessly myopic.

Nothing revelatory there. But then we come to the planning committee who, as most of Twitter agreed, were the undoubted highlights of the show, not least our hero Barbara, a terrifying senior member of the committee who seemed, despite her protestations and stickler-for-the-rules mentality, did seem to take her role a little too seriously. Throughout the show we were treated to various scenes of the bus-full of the planning committee members heading out to site visits, like a pensioners’ day trip to Margate, full of inane comments and homespun and often incorrect planning ‘wisdom’. Ultimately these 15 locals were to decide on the key decisions and cast their vote with such an arbitrary nature that one wondered if any of them had, in the cold light of day, considered the application against relevant planning law (as they should) and not simply on some sort of personal whim.

These people were not experts in building, architecture or, worst of all, planning. And yet, as The Planners shows, they hold the keys to unlocking our housebuilding future. And for anyone interested in seeing us get the homes we need in the UK, that is monumentally depressing.

After an hour on BBC2, I’m left more convinced than ever that we need not just changes to planning law, but a radical overhaul of the planning system. We need to put our future in the hands of qualified experts, not a bus-full of oldies enjoying a day out.

Comments
  • Jeremy Murfitt

    Jason

    I too thought the case officers came over well. I totally agree with your comments on the elected members, their age profile was probably little different to many other planning committees. As someone working in property and planning the one thing that really does get me is not being able to speak to the Committee Members during the application process whereas the general public have free access. On the few occasions I have been able to do this there had to be a planning officer in attendance. I have dealt with applications when dialogue with the local member would have been helpful for all parties. Planning does get personal and emotional, objectors can take an entrenched position, no room for negotiation. For the applicant being able to discuss the project might lead to an acceptable solution for all parties.

    I also wonder if on some of the larger applications that the objectors may make more progress if they engage with the developers. Where an application is in accordance with policy and likely to be approved the developer would be more likely to consider some design changes to appease the local residents or even agree to helping to provide other facilities the community actually needs.

    Jeremy

  • David Claude

    Entertaining programme but I could not understand why they let the elderly couple put a row of solar panels on the roof of their listed property. It looked completely wrong!

  • Amanda Martin

    Like it or not this is democracy.

    Of course the over sixties don’t have a monopoly on intellectual mediocrity and inability to adhere to principle and keep subjectivity out of decision making. In my experience local government in this country attracts people of all ages without the wit, education or taste to fit them for public office and this is no more evident than in the planning horrors that have blighted every neighbourhood and turned every town centre into a wasteland of carparks and pisspoor shopping malls.

    I digress slightly but a few years ago I went for an interview for a job with my local council (transport planning). I was asked what I would do first and replied that I would put all the councillors on a ferry and send them to the Netherlands so that they could see for themselves what good land use and transport planning look like. I didn’t get it.

  • Jeremy Murfitt

    Amanda

    I agree with your and previous comments on the general age profile of councillors. It is the same up and down the Country and you are quite right it’s a democracy so if you want to get involved and influence decisions I guess you have to get elected. Even then you could be the lone voice of reason and still get voted down! How though do you attract a different age profile/demographic to become an elected member? I get as wound up as anyone else with the planning system (and that’s what I do work wise) but I would never even consider becoming an elected member. Maybe they could employ a few impartial professionals to sit on Committee’s and guide them? Don’t know the answer.

    Finally can’t agree more about the Netherlands, I hoping to visit Almere this year, it does sound amazing what they have achieved, not least processing applications within a week! Next time offer them tickets on Ryanair.

  • Amanda Martin

    Hi Jeremy, I wouldn’t want to be ageist about it – Philistinism and muddled thinking know no generational boundaries. On the other hand, this is the generation responsible for the Seventies and do we want people who embraced brown and orange wallpaper, Vesta curry, loons and the urban dual carriageway influencing the future of our built heritage?

    They were also responsible for Almere and I have to say that looks bloody awful too but at least there will be a civilised cycle network and you won’t have to wait an hour for a bus. Maybe you know something I don’t – I’ve been out of this stuff for a while.

  • Mollie Reed

    As for age! I am well over 65 years of age and age has nothing to do with making good decisions. I attend Planning Committees in my work and have had experience of obtaining 3 planning permissions to build new properties over the last 15 years.

    Consequently, I understand the responsibilities of the planners and Planning Committee Members, however, my recent experience shows me that new ideas on Planning, such as the Pre Application Discussion, do not work as described in the Protocols to the benefit of those wishing to gain planning permission, what ever age you are. Most Planners appear to be quite young to me, so what is their excuse.

    My latest planning experience began 14 Sept 2011 when I applied for a Pre Application Discussion to demolish a property and rebuild :

    § None of the deadlines in the Council

  • Amanda Martin

    Mollie I can see that you’re not over it but I think we have to distinguish between a bad idea and a good idea executed badly.

    I’ve now watched the first two episodes of "The Planners". I’m both completely hooked and on the point of self-combustion that any local authority planning committee could have approved an enormous extension to an intensive chicken farm, if you can call it a farm, a few metres from six families’ homes. I appreciate that farm animal abuse is not a material planning consideration but I’m astounded that a few miserable, unskilled, low paid jobs were deemed to take precedence over the amenity of local residents in this instance. I’m also in no doubt that the repugnant Mr Campbell would have met with less success had one of the neighbours enjoyed HRH before his name.

    It all goes to show, I suppose, how subjective and prone to human whim the whole process is but I can’t see any alternative that doesn’t rob it of what democracy there is. One thing that does concern me, however, is the tendency of local authorities to approve applications that clearly fail planning criteria because of the risk of losing at appeal and the consequent costs. It’s absolutely crucial that local planning committees make decisions on merit and by appropriate application of planning principles not out of financial expediency.

    It’s also pretty depressing that a TV production company providing programmes for BBC 2 can’t manage to spell "Principal" planning officer.

  • Amanda Martin

    …and by the way, Jason, objectors may not always be very strategic or even coherent in their arguments but they often do have the rights instincts. They often recognise, in a way that professionals don’t, that our beautiful places, both natural and built, add something to our quality of life that can’t be quantified in pounds and pence and that the irrevocable loss of it renders us the poorer.

  • Antony Atkins

    Has there been any hint yet that the planning officers’ decisions and policy are being driven by financial considerations, i.e. a desire to maximise S106 and CIL tax? I have a site off a private access road that is several hundred feet long and supplies five existing houses, and which will need to be upgraded to adoptable standard if I add a sixth. The road and woodland owned by a third party either side will therefore need to be included in the "red line" area defining my site when I make an application, taking the site just over the 0.3 hectare limit, above which developers are required to provide affordable housing. Consequently I’ve been told by the planners that although I only want to build one house, the size of my site including the access road means I have to provide a second social house on the site for a local housing association, or matching cash so they can build a house somewhere else.

    This seems to me to be an utterly ludicrous policy; other local authorities don’t include an access road in the assessment of the size of a site, by my authority does, it appears by deliberate policy to attack "garden grabbing"/backfill development and maximise CIL/affordable homes taxes on small self-builders.

  • Amanda Martin

    I’m not sure, Tony; I’m still reeling from episode 3 and the astonishing stitch-up concerning the extension of the muslim community centre at Fishwick Street Rochdale.

    ‘m sure I’m not the only one to be deeply troubled by the discourteous and undemocratic way in which the Chairwoman of the planning committee appeared to brush aside officers’ advice and stifle debate before calling a premature vote, apparently having made no attempt to justify her recommendation for approval by reference to planning principles and without giving fellow members a proper opportunity to understand how the application could be so justified. Freedom of worship and of religious expression are important elements of a free society but our built environment affects everyone and I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling deep dismay at the prospect of applications affecting its future determined by nothing more than cultural and religious bias as this one was.

    In planning terms, this was clearly an extremely poor scheme and the ward councillor should never have called it in. Furthermore, in my opinion, the Chair’s conduct fell far short of the standards of objectivity and integrity required under Rochdale Council’s Authority’s Code of Conduct but, in any event, it does demonstrate, as Jason suggested originally, that decisions taken without professional expertise and objectivity will often be deeply flawed.

  • Jeremy Murfitt

    Mollie and Tony’s experiences are examples of poor planning. The stance taken in either case seems on the information presented to be quite wrong. In Mollies case it is clear to see the financial burden arising from poor advice let alone the time delay. For a new case officer to then approve the removal of the condition must have made them even more angry. Tony’s case is simply bizarre. You really do wonder what on earth the planners are thinking. It sounds like pure "check box" planning. I wonder if there is scope to submit two applications, one for house and one for the road?

  • Antony Atkins

    Thanks Jeremy: my architect also suggested two applications, one to improve the road and the second for the building site itself, but at a pre-app enquiry meeting we were told that the definition of a "site" includes all land required, both for the house+garden and for access to the adopted public highway, so splitting the application into two won’t work. I’m currently seeking some second opinions from planning consultants, and this policy may provide a convenient ground for appeal if the application is refused.

    There’s also the option of splitting my main freehold, unmortgaged site into two at the Land Registry and then making an application on an area just beneath the 0.3 figure including the road; I would then add the marooned piece of land back to my main site at a later date as "additional garden".

  • Jeremy Murfitt

    Tony

    I don’t see the need to split the title (save you costs). The planners can only determine the application as submitted and I assume you will the reduce the area to get round the area threshold. You will need to submit a plan showing land in control of the applicant and I guess you would have to show both parcels (not 100% sure but I recall that if the same person owns it you should include it on the plan). Have you got support of the Parish Council and neighbours? I would hazard a guess that the other 5 households might not be overly keen to have an affordable house imposed on them. Any joy with approaching the local councillor? Hope your Pre App Consultation wasn’t too expensive. I have done two recently in the East Midlands and for North West Leicestershire it’s £1600!!!!

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