Town and country planning sounds like a very dry subject, but I know how much people care about their localities and want a say in any new developments that might change the character of their areas.
In recent years we have seen private developers build numerous new student residences in Chester – outside of any projects by the University of Chester itself – and the local council has very little grounds to turn them down. And remember, the cards are stacked in the developers’ favour: if the council turns down an application, and the developers appeal and win, then the council has to pay all their costs.
And with local councils already running on empty when it comes to finance, who can blame them for being risk averse?
Previously the government had introduced ‘permitted development’ which increased the size and scale of any projects before you needed to ask for planning permission.
Now the government wants to remove almost all local say in planning permission and hand over authority to planning boards in Whitehall, which may include the big housing developers who would benefit from relaxed positions.
Even some Conservative MPs are anxious, and I am absolutely opposed. Not least because many of the housebuilders concerned are big political donors to the governing party. That stinks.
But local decision making matters, even if a council’s powers to say no are already limited.
Cheshire is a rural county. I grew up in the countryside and it is important that we protect it. Not hand it over for a developers’ free for all without any local say, or any check or balance.
Certainly we need more housing. But at the moment we are not building the right type of housing. The mix is all wrong. We need more flats for single adults, more homes for social rent for families who can’t afford to buy, and more smaller homes and bungalows for retired people.
Instead, left to private developers, we will get more large family homes built in attractive country locations, because these are what will earn housebuilders the most money. I don’t blame them for that: they’re private companies and are looking to make a profit, which is fine. But I am old fashioned: I think housing policy should be there to meet the needs of people who need housing, not the needs of private companies and big political donors.
We can’t take local decision making away. I suspect the government has trouble ahead on its new proposals.