Politics is about choices. At its most basic, it is the process of debating alternative courses of action and deciding which to follow. Do you raise taxes or lower them? Go to war or not? Grant the planning application, or refuse it? The issues can be profound or mundane, but from observing local and national politics, it is the last example that I find perhaps most illuminating.
Planning policy has a reputation for being rather dry, even dull – but it is in fact politics at its most fundamental. Passions run very high indeed. Think of the recent local controversies over plans for IKEA on Greenwich peninsula, the proposed demolition of the Woolwich Grand, the Lovell’s Wharf development… the list goes on.
Every planning application sets up a clear choice – it can either be approved, or not. There will be a winner, and a loser. The decision on which side will prevail is a classic balancing of liberties – the freedom of the applicant to build what they want, against the freedom of others not to suffer its consequences. On the need for arbitration of such disputes rests the whole basis for the state, systems of government, and democracy. Our acceptance of such decisions as legitimate is essential to the rule of law. To stretch that argument to its full extent, we are only ever one misplaced conservatory away from the slide to anarchy.
Having spent my whole nine years as a Greenwich councillor in opposition, I never got to wield real power – except in planning. As a member of a planning committee, my vote could make a real difference. The genuine emotion of the objectors (and less often, of the applicants) was very moving indeed. When an unpopular decision was reached, a wave of upset and anger could be unleashed from the public gallery – accompanied by cries of “what about democracy?”
So, what about democracy? In planning, that’s a rather tricky question. In theory, the democratic control of these decisions is clear: We elect the councillors, they consider the application, then vote. The majority carries the day, and, well, that’s democracy. Isn’t it? Well, up to a point.
Planning decisions, unlike others taken by the Council, are not supposed to divide on party lines. Despite suspicions (often caused by the sight of Cabinet members sitting on the Planning Board), there is no ‘whip’ for these meetings. This sounds attractive – like “free votes” in Parliament, where members exercise their judgement and conscience to come to a wise decision. But these planning votes are not really free. They are in fact hugely constrained by the reams of policies and guidance - local, regional and national- with which the decisions must, by law, accord. It is this fact that leads to such an understandable feeling of injustice by campaigners when a decision doesn’t go their way.
However loudly the protesters shout, however sympathetic councillors may be to their case, there is a shadow hanging over the process. Members know that if they turn down an application on anything less than rock solid planning grounds, the applicant can appeal to the Planning Inspector, and is likely to win. Defending these cases can be very expensive, and this led the previous Leader of the Council, Chris Roberts, to say in public on a number of occasions (most recently over the Woolwich Grand application) that he would rather vote through a proposal than subject the Royal Borough’s taxpayers to a losing battle against it.
This comment throws light on a very troubling aspect of local democracy, in Greenwich and elsewhere. Development decisions arouse huge passion, and provoke vehement protests. But too often, the decisions taken bear little relation to the weight of local public opinion. This isn’t just obstinacy on the part of the councillors (well, not always) – but the looming fear of a costly appeal, reinforced by advice and recommendations from Council officers. To discharge their duties responsibly, members have to take a decision that is legally defensible, whether it is popular or not.
This system casts elected politicians in an uncomfortable role– somewhere between an impartial bureaucrat and a judge. They aren’t acting as local representatives – instead, their job is to assess the application against the web of planning policies and decide the correct legal outcome. And if they are swayed by the weight of public opinion, their decision can be overturned. So - as I found myself asking on some occasions– what is the point of having elected members in the process? Indeed, I heard one prominent local figure suggest that fewer decisions should be taken by members, as the decisions taken under delegated powers by Council planning officers were quicker and less prone to be challenged at appeal.
How have we got ourselves into a situation where elected representatives seeking to represent local opinion are seen as a costly problem? It is perverse. Either Councillors restrict themselves simply to implementing the letter of planning policy – in which case the decision may just as well be taken by Council planning officers – or they take a political stand, and find themselves overruled. The shouts of “What about democracy?” contained more truth than even the protesters knew.
One of the implications of this most unsatisfactory state of affairs should be to put more focus on the planning policies adopted by the Council. If they are the framework against which applications are to be tested, they assume huge importance. This is why the ‘Masterplans’ hurriedly drawn up under the last administration in Greenwich are of such concern. If they are flawed (and I would say they are), the negative results will be played out in a succession of unpopular planning decisions in the years ahead. I will leave discussion of specific cases for another time, but if you want a warning from history, I would commend this excellent blogpost by former Chair of Planning Alex Grant. If we don’t want to see similar regrets expressed in future, the new administration in Greenwich should revisit its policies now, and consider how it can best engage the Borough’s residents in revising them. That would be democracy.