LETTER: Penny dropped on local plan

I GATHER from your report of the district council’s consideration of the government planning inspector’s ‘directions’ on the local plan that the proverbial penny has finally dropped.

By approving politically unpopular proposals in the draft plan, members of the majority party on the council now realise that they are almost certain to lose seats at the election next May. They could have avoided this.

Firstly, they should have questioned the validity of the housing requirement forecast which is based on evidently unrealistic assumptions about local economic growth.

Secondly, they should have refused to accept the amount of immigration implicit in the forecast (natural population growth in the district would produce a reducing need for housing over the plan period).

Thirdly, they should have given overriding importance to the priority of environment and landscape preservation among the several priorities listed in central government guidance on local plan preparation – priorities that local planning authorities are only required to ‘take into account’ rather than slavishly accept.

The planning system is designed to resolve conflicts between the political priorities of local and central government. Central government can relieve a local planning authority of its statutory planning power, for example, by granting permission for development on appeal against a refusal, calling in a decision on a controversial proposal, or directing that certain action is taken (like altering a draft local plan).

Local councillors are thereby seen to have responded to local opinion but have been reluctantly forced to accept the superior will of central government. This allows for local political face-saving.

The situation it has created is potentially politically disastrous for the ruling party on the council.

It wrongly interpreted central government advice as statutory direction. In trying to accommodate it, it produced a draft plan that ignored strong local public opinion. It has thereby invited even more unpopular proposals from central government that already disaffected local people will be forced to accept. It has provided its opponents with powerful ammunition.

The district council should have produced a draft plan that local people wanted.

If central government did not like it then it would be accountable for the political consequences of altering it. No loss of local face, no loss of council seats. This is not a local plan, it is a local sham – a political sham.

John Fielding

Maplehurst Road