(photo by Andrew Aitchison / In pictures via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Give power back to the people

The reality of localism, planning reform and house building

Campaign groups are campaigning against the government’s planning reforms – they will “undermine local democracy,” it is said. No surprise there. At the moment, the system works very well for them. The problem is, it’s not campaign groups that get governments elected – voters do, and specifically, those in the New Tory seats. For them, the planning system stopped working a very long time ago.

Planning is an elite conversation when it should be about how it affects people’s lives

These are the people no-one has bothered to listen to for generations and (the two are linked) who voted Conservative for the first time in December last year. They have been particularly hard hit by planning over many years. Whether it’s the local council or national Government that makes the decisions isn’t the point for these people. It’s that they are never involved in the decision. They are only ever told that something is going to happen.

At the moment, planning is an elite conversation about algorithms when it should be about how it affects people’s lives.

Take my old constituency in North East Derbyshire. In the past, when the mines were still open there was noise and filth, but it came with jobs and good money. Once the pits were closed, the work vanished and communities were left with massive voids in the ground where the coal had been, perfect for stuffing with stinking landfill.

In one village where I lived, you couldn’t open your windows at the front of your house in hot summers for the stench and flies. We were delighted when the holes were filled only to find that another landfill was being opened on the other side of the village. The same stink and flies only at the back of the house this time. You can see how people in these areas feel that they have been treated, literally, like dumping grounds for years and why they’re sick of it.

But what can they do?

For years these ex-industrial working-class communities have been painting banners and marching on town halls, attending public meetings and consultation events. They raise their concerns about what’s coming, but in the end, it always happens anyway. The decision was already made before the consultation began. The pits close, the job centre goes, and the only bank branch shuts down. Eventually the buses stop coming and the high street shops get boarded up.

So, when you talk to people in these previously bustling towns and villages about planning and consultation, it’s no surprise they shrug and turn away.

And it’s not that people want to stop things being built. It’s that they would like to have a say on what they’re being asked to live with for the rest of their lives.

For example, one particularly deprived part of the constituency had two crumbling infant schools and one collapsing junior. You’d think this ex-mining town would be delighted when it was announced that money was found, and a piece of council land identified to build a modern primary school with state-of-the-art facilities.

Instead, a delegation of mums and teachers asked for my help to “Save Our Schools”. I was amazed. What was going on? Surely no-one could object to a new school. A public meeting was called, a parents’ march was organised moving from one of the schools to the assembly hall of the others.

The parents, dressed in casual clothes sitting in tiny children’s chairs at knee-high tables, were addressed from a high stage where the education portfolio holder and his officer sat in suits and lanyards at the platform.

What followed was a technical presentation of how educational outcomes were determined by the facilities, equipment and available resources. The PowerPoint slide deck had charts and bullet points projected onto a whiteboard. I don’t think they used the word “pedagogy”, but they might as well have done.

Once the council’s exasperated presentation was over, the room erupted with furious questions all of which roughly boiled down to: “What’s wrong with the old schools?” “Are you saying they’re not good enough? Careful how you answer that because I went to that school and so did my parents.”

We need to make sure that decision-making actually engages with the communities most affected

Not until everyone had had their say did the local county councillor speak. He wasn’t on the platform looking down but sitting with them. He too had gone to one of those schools, as had his parents, his children and now his grandchildren. He made the case in their own terms. He told them that no-one was saying the schools were no good, just that they needed new buildings. The middle-class town at the other end of the constituency, he said, would have occupied the council offices demanding they work through the night to build the new primary. “Why are we campaigning against money for our town and a chance for our children to do better than we did?”

After that, the mood changed. People agreed that a new school was probably needed, but could they please have it away from the main road and in between the two communities that it was going to serve rather than on the farthest side of one?

This story had a happy ending but only because one local councillor, who really knew his community, understood what the underlying problems were. The local council didn’t.

The meeting wasn’t so different from a “consultation event” held for another planning decision, this time one that was national: HS2. The high-speed train, for anyone who is unaffected by it, might seem like a good idea, but when its route is through the village in which you have lived for many generations, it’s a life-changing experience.

People couldn’t believe it. Why them? Why here? What did they want with a train? And to London! What they needed was a better bus service to Eckington. It wasn’t long before a NO2HS2 group was formed, more to get and share information than anything else. As the MP, I invited some people up from HS2 Ltd to tell us a bit more about the plans and hopefully to put people’s minds at rest. After all, nothing was set in stone.

We all met one evening in the parish rooms waiting for them to arrive. They were late which made their entrance more dramatic than it might have been. The women were definitely not local. One had purple jagged hair and the other, wearing the height of London fashion, made people gasp. They were also, clearly, desperate to leave.

They rushed through their presentation saying how HS2 would improve capacity and connectivity, how it would transform their lives by opening up the North, that for every pound invested two would be made. People listened politely without understanding a word the Londoners were saying.

After a while, a man raised his hand and asked if they had a map so he could see if the train was going through his house. They didn’t have a map and they didn’t know the area, so they weren’t able to tell him. It was the only question that everyone in the room wanted answered. They just wanted to know what was going to happen to their village.

What followed was years of worry and blight, not being able to sell the homes that they didn’t want to leave anyway.

So, the point isn’t about stopping development, it’s about making sure that whoever is making the decisions actually engages with the communities most affected and that they are properly connected with, consulted, listened to. Their concerns should be listened to – and heard – and their ideas should be actively considered. At the moment, that’s not happening, not with local council planning decisions nor with national ones.

These communities, after all, know the area in which they live better than anyone else and might make suggestions, like where the school should go, that are better than the original plan.

After the dust had settled on where to build the school, I found out that the person who had been mobilising this small community was a man whose much-loved wife had recently passed away. She had been a teaching assistant at one of the schools and for him, the building was a living monument to her. He would do anything to stop it being pulled down.

An awful lot of time and anger could have been spared by the simple promise of a plaque at the new school. That’s got nothing to do with what level of government makes planning decisions. To find that out, you really need to talk to people, and if that’s what the planning reforms bring about then that can only be a good thing. Get this right, and it could transform these communities and the way they feel about developments on their doorstep.

Get it wrong, though, and these first-time Conservative voters will go back to shrugging their shoulders and walking away again.

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