Thursday, 23 May 2019

Openness and transparency in our planning system

As an MP, one of the main issues that I’m frequently contacted about is that of local planning applications and enforcement cases. These can often be simple matters pertaining to a constituent’s property or larger more controversial planning applications for major new housing developments. 
I have always argued that we should prioritise brown field development before greenfield so that we can protect our green spaces and countryside but also force developers and planners to apply themselves to thinking about to how regenerate our urban environment and reduce dereliction. Because Cornwall is a narrow peninsula, our landscape, beautiful though it is, is also particularly vulnerable to being blighted by inappropriate development so we need to tread with caution. 
For the majority of cases I encounter, the matter falls outside of my remit as an MP since it is a matter for the Council, however we will always try and help wherever possible and often advise them to contact the Council’s planning department for further information. 
I have always been of the opinion that developments should also be done with communities, not to them. Planning decisions will often be contentious but by working together with residents and local councillors we can sometimes identify a way through. It needs people to be open and engaging to work. 
I was therefore surprised to hear that there has been a move by the Council to reduce the openness and transparency that our planning system requires. Until recently members of the public were automatically informed when a planning application they had commented on is ‘called in’ for a decision before a planning committee. This provided members of the public with the chance to attend the meeting and make representations to committee members in advance if so desired. Now the Council has stated that they will no longer inform people automatically when a case is called in for decision. The result is likely to be that more people who have expressed a concern about an application will feel bounced and ignored. 
The Council have claimed that this measure has been introduced to save costs, but this reasoning does not look very convincing since the council are still prepared to produce hard copies of agendas for cabinet members and it ought to be possible to use email where possible but letter where necessary. That way people would still be informed but there would be a gradual transition to a paperless model. 
At a time when trust in our democratic institution both local and national is being questioned by so many, we should be trying to increase engagement and transparency. 

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