Don’t like city planners? Then vote them out…

Cllr Nick Eden-Green answers the question: what is the planning committee for?

by Nick Eden-Green

I don’t mind giving Alex Claridge some answers to his questions about what the planning committee is for.

Certainly, and quite rightly, it cannot just do what it likes. In granting or refusing a planning consent it has quasi-legal powers to allow new building to be built.

Just imagine if there were no planning or legal guidelines over such decisions. You could easily have a bunch of seven maverick councillors empowered to grant consent for a skyscraper in the Westgate Gardens or to refuse Mrs Smith an extension on the back of her house because you don’t like her wallpaper.

All quasi-legal bodies work within guidelines, from High Court judges downwards. The guidelines are set in part by the government and in part by the council itself within their own Local Plan.

These guidelines, or planning policies, ensure the planning committee makes fair and consistent decisions.

Cllr Nick Eden-Green

The problems arise when the Local Plan is clearly deficient. I would argue that our plan is deficient on what it says, or rather fails to say, about purpose built student accommodation (PBSA), traffic congestion, major out of town developments and a few other things.

That’s why I voted against it. However, that said, there is much in it that I do agree with.

So at any planning committee councillors are guided by officers who recommend an application is either granted or refused according to agreed policies.

Most of the time the committee agrees with the officers because that’s what the policies indicate. Sometimes they disagree and vote the other way. But they have to have good reasons for doing so.

Take some recent decisions. The 4,000-house Mountfield Park was strenuously opposed by many local residents. It had been put into the draft Local Plan in 2014 and the Conservatives approved it , the Lib Dems opposed it and the single Labour councillor wasn’t much help so the die was cast four years ago.

When Mountfield came to the planning committee there was a chance to see how it could be made to work in more detail. There were good reasons to refuse it and I proposed it should be refused but the committee disagreed and voted it through. That’s democracy.

Take the multi-storey car park proposed in Station Road West. Again, there were good reasons to refuse. I voted against but was outvoted again. Democracy.

A total of 120 student flats have been approved for the Barretts site

Then look at the recent series of applications for more purpose built student accommodation (PBSA). As I have said before, we know it’s not generally liked or wanted by residents, students or the universities alike.

We also think the brownfield sites that it uses should be for houses. But the local plan is silent and developers will build whatever they can to maximise their profits. It’s called capitalism.

I don’t have a problem with capitalism provided there are adequate checks and balances to ensure we get socially acceptable outcomes. That’s what the local plan should have done. It didn’t, but don’t blame me! Yes, democracy again.

However, the planning committee can make a difference. We turned down the original 224 bed PBSA scheme at the old dairy site on Military Road.

Admittedly the planning inspector reversed that decision but it led to a far better, smaller scheme. The committee approved the 382-bed scheme at Kingmead but a number of us voted against and we had good reason.

The same was true of the decision on Tuesday night with the 120-bed Barretts scheme. On the other hand, the site at the former St Mary Bredin School for 146 beds was refused, overturning the officer recommendation.

The former St Mary Bredin School in Canterbury

I can remember plenty of other occasions when the committee disagreed with officers on controversial applications.

There have been numerous small ones like the recently refused three houses in Whitstable, but other much bigger ones like the first application for the redevelopment of the Tannery site, or a nightclub in Wincheap, or, recently, major housing developments in Hersden and Blean all against officer recommendation.

Sometimes these have been against development and sometimes for it. I agree that the planning committee is constrained by guidelines, some of its own making.

But if you don’t like the guidelines then vote out the councillors who approved them.

If you don’t like the decisions made by the planning committee vote them out too. It’s called democracy.

So yes, the planning committee often does have the power to respond to the will of the general population.

But only if councillors exercise their powers over the local plan first, and then choose to exercise those powers at committee.

However, that depends on the public electing the councillors they want in the first place.

Cllr Nick Eden-Green sits on Canterbury City Council’s planning committee and is a former Lord Mayor of Canterbury. He represents Wincheap for the Liberal Democrats.


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