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Stop the Exclusion and Obfuscation



Clare Delmar, Listen to Locals




Local Planning in the UK is having a moment --- recent local elections highlighted planning and in particular housing as a top concern amongst voters; planning reform is at the top of the Westminster agenda; even news outlets from across the pond are reporting on planning decisions in English cities.


If there’s ever a time to contribute to and advance the discussion around planning, it’s now.


Yet many are excluded from this conversation and from contributing their views on local planning matters, and those that are included often meet with obfuscation when seeking to access information and engage with planning officials.


Why?


For a start, getting access to planning documents can be challenging to say the least.


I wrote in a recent blog about the GLA planning portal, and how difficult it was to locate and access the Health Impact Assessment for the Stag Brewery (see if you can find it here).

There is no navigation aid, no search capacity, no logical titles in no particular order, and quite a few missing links.


There are often hundreds of documents for large-scale planning applications like the Stag, and most people simply walk away to preserve their sanity. This is a digital divide of the highest order, as even digital natives struggle to access information that impacts their lives.


If you are successful in locating and accessing documents that will help you understand the planning application and its impact on your community, you often find they are produced by consultants who have no local knowledge and use outdated and sometimes incorrect information to support their conclusions.


I described in a previous blog how supporting reports for the Stag Brewery application, prepared by consultants Stantec (transport impact) and Hatch Regeneris (Health Impact Assessment), contained information that was both incorrect and outdated, and on which concluding analyses were based. Neither report demonstrated local knowledge or presented evidence of impact derived through engagement with local businesses or residents.


Yet these reports carry weight in “informing” planning officers in their recommendations, ultimately elected officials in their decision-making. And given the time constraints of public hearings, few speakers reference them in statements, and they lie unchallenged amidst the pile of supporting documents.


And finally, community groups are often excluded from direct meetings and conversations with planning officers.


When the Mayor called in the planning application for Stag Brewery back in May 2020, residents heard nothing until August when an initial public consultation was announced – on what was revealed to be a substantially different planning application. The 843-unit development that was called in following Richmond Council’s approval had become a 1250+ development, and the discussions and agreements driving this new proposal had been done entirely behind closed doors.


An FOI request made by the local community group, Mortlake Brewery Community Group, revealed that 23 meetings between GLA planning officers and the applicants had taken place during the period since call-in, while throughout the same period requests for meetings by the MBCG were ignored.



The good news is that these practices of exclusion and obfuscation can be very easily remedied, if there is the will to do so. Given the heightened awareness around local planning, now is the time to build that will and make it happen.

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