» planning committee ¦ What You Can Get Away With

As you may have heard by now, Colchester Borough Council’s Planning Committee voted last night to reject the latest proposal for Jumbo. I was at the meeting and spoke against the plans, so I’m glad the committee agreed with me, but I thought I would expand on my views here.

Firstly, I would recommend reading this blog post by architect Hana Loftus on the proposals, which sets out some very good arguments against them.

We always have to be careful about falling into what Yes, Minister called the politician’s fallacy: Something must be done, this is something, therefore it must be done. I think everyone agrees that we’d like to see a new use for Jumbo, especially one that opens up the water tank and belvedere as a public space, but that doesn’t mean that any plan that does that in some way is necessarily a good one. My problem with this proposal was that the public access and usage that was proposed seemed very much an afterthought, and was not the centrepiece of the scheme.

As proposed, the scheme would have glazed the arches between the legs, allowing the open space there to be filled in with offices, apartments and a restaurant, while the tank would have been converted into a museum space. The problem for me is that while the application talked about creating a restaurant and museum, there was very little detail on what they would be, and what detail there was wasn’t very convincing. To quote from English Heritage’s response to the proposals:

If the establishment of a museum is to be regarded as a public benefit, It must be more thoroughly defined than this, and it must be secured by legally enforceable means.

However, instead of detailed plans about what could go into the space and information about groups and people who’d be interested in running the museum space, there were only vague promises and a sketchy business plan based on assumptions that hadn’t been scrutinised or challenged. Further to that, the application was only guaranteeing 90 days public access a year to that space and the space itself would not become a public or charitable asset, instead remaining in the possession of the owner of the building. If the plans had been approved last night, there would have been nothing to stop a future owner of Jumbo coming back to get permission to turn the public spaces into further apartments claiming public use was now ‘unviable’ – and with the principle of development already conceded, those proposals would have a good chance of succeeding.

The problem for me is that we were being asked to surrender the iconic status of Jumbo by filling in the legs in return for what might only be a fleeting benefit, if it was of any benefit at all. A Jumbo that’s open to all and a community asset is one thing, and quite different from one that’s become effectively a block of flats.

What I have been cheered by is that the proposal and the discussion its caused in the local community does seem to have emboldened people to take some action and start talking about other visions for Jumbo and how it could find a genuine community use. The important fact is that Jumbo is not in danger of falling down any time soon – indeed, it stood up to Monday’s winds much better than some other local buildings did – and the Council now needs to ensure that the owner meets his responsibilities for a listed building and keeps it maintained.

I want to see Jumbo being used as an asset for the community and Colchester, but I want it to be with the right plans, not simply the plans that have been submitted right now.

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I thought it might be useful if I wrote a post to explain some of the ways in which planning and development control work – at least, how they do in Colchester – in an effort to give people a bit more insight into the way the system works, and the role councillors like me have in it. I think some – though not all – of the issues people have with planning come from not understanding how the system works, and how much councillors can and can’t achieve.

One of the first points to understand is that there are two parts to the planning process. Planning applications aren’t decided within a vacuum, but in the light of various policies and plans. There are lots of different things that make up planning policy in its totality, but the key ones are the National Planning Policy Framework and the Colchester Local Development Framework (currently turning into the Local Plan, as renamed by the NPPF). These set out the broad strokes of what can and can’t be done, and the LDF/Local Plan is particularly responsible for allocating different areas for different types of development.

Strategic planning like this isn’t dealt with by the Planning Committee. Rather, it’s the remit of the Local Plan Committee, the Cabinet and the Council to decide on what goes into the Local Plan, and that plan then has to be approved by a Government-appointed planning inspector before it can be properly adopted. For instance, changing the Plan to include the Tiptree Jam Factory proposals had to go through an inspection before it could be allowed.

So it’s within these frameworks that planning applications are submitted and decided on. When an application is submitted to the Council, it has to be judged against the rules, not just arbitrarily judged according to whatever criteria someone wishes to apply at the time. If an application is to be refused, it has to be for distinct and justifiable reasons on planning grounds, not whatever personal or political fiat seems a good idea.

As you can see from my planning update posts, or from looking at the list of applications on the Council website, many planning applications are submitted to the Council every week, but only a few come before the Planning Committee. This is because the bulk of applications that come into the Council are relatively uncontroversial and can be decided on by the planning officers with powers that are delegated to them. In certain cases – for instance, on a major application with objections from the public – an application will automatically go to the committee, but otherwise it has to be called in by a councillor to appear before the committee.

This is why most applications that appear before the committee come with a recommendation of approval. On minor applications, ones that are recommended for refusal are rarely called before the committee, and for major applications, much work takes place between the applicants and the council planners to come up with an application that can be recommended for approval. Large applications that are recommended for refusal are normally withdrawn and resubmitted in amended form before they can come to the committee.

The Planning Committee itself is what’s referred to in local government circles as a ‘quasi-judicial’ committee. This doesn’t mean we get to dress and up and pretend to be judges – or even quasi-judges – but that applications have to be decided on based on evidence and policy, not personal bias. This is why members of the committee can’t announce before a meeting how they’re going to vote on an application, as that would be to pre-judge their decision before they’ve heard and seen all the evidence.

This means that if the committee want to reject an application, it has to be done on planning grounds. These grounds, referred to as material planning considerations (click on the link for a list) are the valid grounds on which the Council can refuse an application and one or more of them must be cited in any rejection of an application. Other reasons outside of the list can be stated, but these can’t be the grounds on which the application is rejected.

“Ah,” you might think, “surely if the Council decides it wants to reject something, it can go ahead and do it on whatever grounds it wants?” Well, it can do, but if someone has an application rejected, they can appeal that decision to the Planning Inspectorate. Note though, that only a rejected application can be appealed – if one is granted, objectors can’t appeal that decision, though they could seek a Judicial Review of the application if they so wished. Granted applications can also be sent to the Inspectorate if the Secretary of State (at present, Eric Pickles, in the Department for Communities and Local Government) requests it to be sent there.

The appeal determines whether the right decision was made by the Council in rejecting the application and whether the grounds on which it was rejected are sound. There are many ways in which the Inspectorate can conduct an appeal, from assessing it purely on written submission, all the way up to a full multiple-day public inquiry into the application. At the end of the process, the inspector will issue an opinion that either upholds or overturns the original decision, and can also award costs against one side or the other if they feel the case justifies it. For instance, if a Council’s original decision to reject an application was regarded as not being based on sound reasons, it would likely have to pay the costs of the appellant. This is one reason why the planning committee needs to find sound reasons to object, otherwise the costs of a protracted case could cost the council thousands of pounds to unsuccessfully defend.

I hope that’s given some insight into how the planning process without going into the specifics of any particular application. It’s a complicated system that I hope I’ve shed some light on.

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So that was my sixth Annual Council Meeting, and the last one before the Mayan apocalypse strikes us all. I expect the next one will involve the survivors of Colchester kneeling before our new alien lizard overlords and declaring them Mayor.

I’m sure the mighty Chronic will have the full rundown of what transpired, but suffice to say that it was a remarkably pleasant full Council meeting for once – as the annual meeting usually is – and we got through all the business relatively quickly. This means I’m now a member of the Planning Committee for the next municipal year, which is what I wanted to do. After being on the Cabinet and being on scrutiny and policy committees before that, I wanted to do something practical this year, and I’ve learnt a lot about planning from being cabinet member for it, so I should be able to contribute to the committee.

Still, it should be a nice uncontentious first meeting to help ease me in…ah, University car parking.

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