Template letter to reply to people concerned about the Planning White Paper

The Durham Lib Dem Group has created a template letter to communicate to residents about the Planning White Paper.

Dear [name]

Thank you for your email.

In Durham we have already serious problems with the way our planning decisions are made by Durham County Council with applications which go to the planning committee decided by councillors lacking local knowledge and unfortunately in some cases on political lines rather than the impartiality required by planning committees eg the new Council headquarters. 

However the proposals set out in the White Paper will not improve this situation.

As a Liberal Democrat I support the principle of community empowerment, devolving decision making to the most local level possible. The proposals in the White Paper take away many of the opportunities for communities and their locally elected representatives to have a final say on how their areas develop. I therefore fundamentally object to the underlying premise of this paper, which is to undermine democratic accountability. Whilst there are elements of the planning system that could benefit from improvement, I disagree that the root cause of issues with the planning system lies entirely at the hands of councils and communities.

The White Paper bemoans the delay in planning processes, the lack of certainty for applicants and communities and too many policy demands from councils. But much of the wrangling between applicants and councils is around viability, the use of which was bolstered as a material planning consideration in the National Planning Policy Framework and which has often led to all parties coming out of that process dissatisfied.

There have already been multiple amendments to the planning system under the current Government, which have undermined the ability of local councils and communities to shape their areas, and to achieve the mixed and balanced development and infrastructure that is needed to create environmentally, equitably and economically sustainable places to live, work and play.

Recent extensions to Permitted Development Rights have increased the opportunity for the delivery of substandard living accommodation.

Whilst I we appreciate that there is a need to diversify the offer on our high streets to make them relevant and sustainable, particularly here in Durham, the recent changes to the Use Class Orders may have an unintended detrimental impact if local councils are no longer able to control changes of use through the planning process.

On the recently proposed “Changes to the Planning System”, the Government’s suggestion of yet another new set of ways to calculate housing need would create more work and uncertainty for councils and communities, and still doesn’t get to the heart of the problem of under supply of housing. Also, using a blunt tool to calculate housing need that does not take into consideration the geographical or other constraints of local areas will simply lead to more development in unsustainable and inappropriate locations.

Councils are already threatened with punishment if they fail the Housing Delivery Test and yet Durham County Council approves (not always wisely) 9 in 10 planning applications and there are an estimated 1 million homes nationally that have already been agreed but which remain unbuilt. I would therefore suggest that it is not the councils or the communities that are at fault, it is the developers and landowners who have been allowed to inflate their prices to create undeliverable schemes or sit on land for an increased resell value. They can game the system by submitting planning applications they know will fail, as a way of establishing, through the appeal system, what's the most they can get out of the process. They then blame the “system” for the inevitable delays. The Liberal Democrats would support moves to reduce the ability for the hoarding of land by introducing some form of land value capture, which would benefit the local community whilst still allowing a profit for landowners.

There is also a proposal to raise the threshold to 40 or 50 homes before affordable housing is delivered, which I disagree with as it will only exacerbate the existing problem of there not being enough homes built that local people can afford to rent or buy.  This is a particular problem due to high house prices in Durham City and limited affordable housing.

Overall my concern is that whilst the simplification of the system may speed up some of the decision making and the certainty for applicants it will not lead to better designed, built or appropriate development.  For this councils, local elected representatives and local communities need to be involved. 

I am happy to sign the open letter as you suggest.  My party has also objected on the grounds set out above.

Yours sincerely,