The Planning Process

Planning in the UK, being the control of development that shapes the society we live in, is notionally devolved to Local Authorities in various guises. The planning authority for The Tufa Field is Bath and North-East Somerset Council, hereinafter known as BANES.

The LA is responsible to National Government for controlling development that complies with national objectives and often finds itself caught between the local community that elects and pays for it, and  national governments (of any persuasion)  that are more concerned with political stance than detailed policy.

Planning control legislation is extremely complex, non-cohesive and as a result opaque to non-experts. Initiatives, directives and conflicting requirements from central government mean that Local Authority planners spend a great deal of time on documentation, checking legal and policy requirements and are frequently forced to re-write or re-constitute plans and policies when governments change.

There is little time for structured, visionary plans to be constructed, and almost zero chance of their implementation.

Little wonder then that ordinary, non-expert citizens find the whole process frustrating and ultimately unsatisfactory.

But the stakes are very high. Property development in a country with restricted land availability and a high population is big business, and large amounts of money are at stake. Yet at the same time, lack of housing, poor quality housing  and homelessness in the UK persists, with no Government seeming to be able to solve it. The construction industry, property development and land acquisition attracts investment from wealthy individuals, national wealth funds and organised crime alike. Property in the UK is a very good way of laundering money from illegal operations worldwide. Unsurprising then, that access to the planning process is restricted to those with deep pockets, and that local authority planning departments fold rapidly when faced with potential huge legal bills from applicants with permanent legal teams and unlimited resources.

Housing construction is a particular victim of the current process, not because  planning permission is restrictive or even difficult to obtain, but because the opacity  has ensured that it is  restricted to a small number of participants with all the characteristics of a cartel.

The six main housebuilders in the UK, Barratt, Belway, Berkeley, Galliford Try, Persimmon and Taylor Wimpey between them have over 600,00 plots with planning consent in landbanks, land they own and could build on but choose not to do so. And this is simply so they can control the price to the end-user. It is perhaps ironic that the biggest purchase anyone makes in their life is from the least competitive market.

Planning Abuse

We can’t talk about the Planning process without recognising the potential for abuse and fraud. Planning control is a tight-knit community, with vested interest players on all sides.

Let’s look at the 3 main difficulties with the local planning system.

  1. The makeup of local councils.

In our democratic situation, anyone can put themselves forward for election to be a Council Member. Yet the makeup of the resulting council rarely reflects the the local demographic. And while attention is rightly paid to issues of ethnicity, gender, and minority representation. little attention is paid to commercial backgrounds and self-interest. It may seem somewhat strange therefore that  larger numbers of  councillors and council officers are directly or indirectly associated with the Construction industries, than might be represented in the population as a whole. By directly we mean owning, employed in or having a pecuniary interest in architects, builders, land agents, planning consultants and so on, and by indirect, we mean family members or close associates involved in the same.

2. The use of property and in particular domestic property to launder money – from crime, international funds and tax-evasion.

While not an abuse in itself, the attraction of a safe-haven for illicit capital means that individuals involved in the planning process come under extreme pressure to help with the process.

3. The contradictions form central government policies and politics.

Successive Governments of all flavours change policy to suit their own political needs, meaning local long-term planning is not only next to impossible, but never fixed. Successive strategic plans, usually given new names to differentiate from yesterday’s plan, are foisted on to the local planning process, causing an endless stream of bureaucratic u-turns, extensions and consequent inaction.

And it is against this background that our Tufa Field finds itself victim.