Rebalance planning rules in favour of people and their council

Houses under construction (stock image)

Property developers across the Canterbury district seem to be acting as if they have a divine right to build whatever they feel like, wherever they want.

Attempts to apply effective planning controls are being met with unveiled threats to build elsewhere or to take the council to court. This is bullying, plain and simple, and it has to stop.

The threat to build elsewhere should be met with a simple resolute invitation to do exactly that.

Calling the developers’ bluff in this way might have a salutary effect all round and is the only rational response to such effrontery.

Of course, given how the planning function of the council is constrained by the legal processes, such a response might have to be carefully worded.

But since the whole concept of planning assessment is based on the notion that is it independent and, as they say, “quasi-judicial”, such a message could be conveyed by someone from the council not involved in that decision making.

This assumes that the threat is a bluff. Why am I so sure it is?

Because developers have quite a lot of money already committed to developments even before they begin building. These “sunk costs” include purchasing the land – or sometimes just an option to buy – which of course might be partly recoverable.

But they’ve also had to fork out for the scheme design and the plethora of required impact assessments. This represents a sizeable investment which isn’t easy to walk away from or recover. Although of course our generous corporate tax system does allow the costs to be written off, which is a shame to say the least.

Anyway, from the point of view of our existing residents, many of us would be delighted to see some of these inappropriate schemes and their shameless promoters disappear to blight someone else’s countryside.

What, though, of the threat of legal action against the council’s decisions? Certainly that involves more cost for the developers, but it is at least equally costly for the council, which as we’ve all noticed is a tad hard up at the moment.

So the question becomes one of whether it can afford the fight and, on balance, whether it stands a reasonable chance of winning.

That risk and the question of affordability is doubtless firmly in the sights of the developers who can afford to gamble that the council will either lose or be forced to concede – remember, they can write off their costs against tax, while the council has no means to recover the legal fees it incurs, tipping the balance of the system in the builders’ favour yet again.

For the developers, the odds on that bet are further improved by two things. The first is the well documented shortcomings of the council’s master plan for development, which has left them with a gaping hole in their defences.

Added to that, this government has consistently eroded the powers and discretion of local councils on planning issues, tilting the balance firmly towards developers.

Now, if that had resulted in the building of the many homes we need in the UK it might at least have the merit of producing a positive benefit, whatever the negative local impacts.

Yet, as keen observers of the many housing developments proposed across Canterbury will have noticed that what is being built is predominantly for people moving into the area, not those who already live here but can’t afford a home.

As a result of all this, we find ourselves in a very odd position. Developers are aggressively pushing for permission to build housing schemes which don’t meet the challenge of providing the sort of homes we need: but then they are not actually building. What is going on?

I have previously discussed some of the bizarre financial jiggery-pokery which makes this viable for developers.

For how long, though, can this situation be allowed to continue before the rules are rebalanced in favour of local people and their elected councils?

Because if the current position proves one thing: it is that while unfettered property market forces may be capable of making developers even more wealthy they are utterly incapable of either protecting our countryside or providing the homes our people need.


  1. Additionally, the power of developers is enhanced and decision-making by local authorities disported by central government polices. As elsewhere in the UK, Kent County Council and Canterbury City Council are subjected to policies dictated directly or indirectly by central government, for example, production of Local Plans concerning provision of houses. Lack of central government funds for housing or infrastructure means that LAs depend on developers to provide these. So, if consent to an application is refused because local residents protest, an LA cannot provide either. If consent is given and specifies a contribution to infrastructure, the developer then controls the start time and phasing of such provision – and probably also its design. Funding cuts over many years have depleted staff numbers and made recruiting and retention of staff with technical expertise – road and construction engineers, in this case – or sufficient experience to supervise technicians, very difficult. Civil servants cannot deviate from policies, no matter how perverse – indeed must commit to them – but in effecting them they have to perform the rituals of consultation that the populace has been taught to expect of a system that purports to be one of representative government. Unfortunately, these rituals lead people to expect that their contributions by way of comments and criticisms to be taken on board. When this does not happen, they lose faith in both those whom they elect to represent them and local civil servants. Thus is the system subverted.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here