White Paper, Whitewash & Hypocrisy

BY ED PEMBERTON

Some seventy years ago this country had some of the worst slums anywhere, and cities devastated by aerial bombing.  There was a real need for new housing and it was met by something that used to be known as Planning. But Planning seems to be a dying art. Places such as Thornbury, a historic market town in South Gloucestershire, already overwhelmed by supposedly ‘much needed’ housing as cumulative harms go ignored, see yet more speculative and unjustifiable planning applications approved.

Villages that define the character of England are being digested by sprawls of multi-coloured boxes of ‘beauty.’ The crown jewels may sit in the Tower of London, but this country’s real crowning glory lies in its countryside, history, and heritage. They are what tourists from afar really come to see, but the Government and speculative developers seem hell-bent on destroying it. The concepts of value and worth have been overridden by officially sanctioned concrete at any cost.

Happily, the Government seems to have dropped the idea of a centrally imposed algorithm that would have lined speculative developer and landowner pockets by laying waste to countryside and food-productive farmland in the south while sucking wealth away from the north where it’s needed. But whatever happened to Localism and people’s wellbeing? What happened to protecting the heritage and countryside for its own sake? And what happened to Planning?

BS35 2HJ – the site in question in the locality of Thornbury, South Gloucestershire

Subjective planning judgment has become terminology to cover up a multitude of inconsistent and irrational decisions for whatever motive suits the Council. Near Thornbury, planning permission was refused for a single dwelling because it would be seen as an alien feature in the countryside, increase dependence on the private car, and contribute little to housing supply, yet Bloor Homes can succeed with 80 such houses that contribute only 1% to the five-year land supply and on agricultural land that is outside the designated development boundary. By the way, this contribution is cited as one of their generous selling points despite the Council having more than a five-year supply – its required 800 houses already built, and about the same again either built or approved.

I should add that the only reference to this site and its mysterious employment land was in the Draft Joint Spatial Plan that was rejected in no uncertain and damning terms by two planning inspectors. Despite this, both the Council and Bloor used it as a legitimate reason for approval.  It has no more legitimacy than a blindfolded person throwing a dart at a map. Call that Planning?

Although the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) insists that housing approvals must be genuinely plan-led, and the White Paper saying that local communities want robust enforcement action to be taken if planning rules are broken, we have a planning authority itself flouting the rules as though the only thing that matters is a developer’s profits – that developer being a Conservative Party benefactor.

We see this proposal – with neither need nor merit – seemingly being approved along pre-determined Party lines despite its remarkable similarity to an earlier one for the same site being refused, not only with the same reasons intact but with an added argument impermissible in law from the Planning Officer, who now magically recommends approval. I should add that two specialist barristers could not have been clearer in their advice to refuse, describing the planning officer’s reasoning and decision as ‘irrational’ and ‘bizarre’.

The Government claims that the White Paper’s proposals would provide for more local democracy, and still says it wants to give local authorities more power to make decisions ― the opposite of what the proposals would achieve. But what happens when this power is abused?

Answer?  I thought it a good idea to request that Mr Jenrick call in this disgraceful affair for independent, professional review by the Planning Inspectorate.  I thought that was the idea but Mr Jenrick says he believes that planning matters are best resolved locally and will intervene only very selectively: “very selectively”— remember that.

In principle Mr Jenrick is right but he seemed quick to intervene locally in Tower Hamlets, overruling the local authority and Planning Inspectorate in favour of Mr Richard Desmond, a Conservative Party benefactor. And he was quick to intervene locally in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Boris Johnson’s Constituency.

In neither of those cases are there suggestions of the legal, NPPF or Local Plan breaches we have here, nor compelling signs of impropriety.  Despite this, and as far as I can tell, Mr Jenrick still refuses to intervene in the outrageous Thornbury issue where the local authority has ignored the NPPF, Local Plan, and the law in favour of a Conservative Party benefactor.  At this point cast your mind back to “very selectively.”  Mr Jenrick does indeed seems to act very selectively, and somewhat hypocritically, too.

In very rapidly raising a substantial sum to fund an expert legal Counsel’s (eventually damning) opinion, we received contributions from far and wide, not just locally. It is evident that our local exasperation reflects widespread anger and frustration with this Government’s and some councils’ enthusiasm to trample over local people and ignore planning law in favour of Party benefit – or worse.  Locally the Conservative Party brand image is in tatters thanks at least in part to three or four individuals, and all this may well lose the constituency – a government minister’s seat.

During the last year, several arrests have been made in Liverpool on various suspicions of conspiracy to defraud and bribery, corruption, and misconduct in public office in relation to property development, the latest being the now former mayor. Rightly, Mr Jenrick has appointed an inspector to investigate. That is all we asking for here.

Yes, the Planning System needs reform, but planning consistency, decency, honesty, protection of our countryside and respecting local resident views are required first and foremost.  Local residents here in Thornbury and across the country have had enough. Take this magazine’s various articles on the corruption at Torbay Council.   

We have offered Mr Jenrick an opportunity to appoint an inspector but haven’t received any reply. Does Mr Jenrick really want to be accused of failure to act?

Ed Pemberton is a retired Chartered Engineer and resident of Thornbury in South Gloucestershire who has campaigned for years to protect local countryside and agricultural land from unjustified sprawl.