Vince Cable on our flawed planning system

Tony Gosling tony at
Sun Feb 7 20:16:02 GMT 2010

Vince Cable on our flawed planning system
"Planning can be tiresome, bureaucratic and 
sometimes painful – as for Mr Fidler with his 
21st Century castle. But without it our quality of life would be far worse."

Prince Charles and newts - your castle’s only hope

Daily Mail - 07th February 2010

Our homes are our castles. Or perhaps not after 
Surrey farmer Robert Fidler was ordered last week 
to demolish his four-bedroom ‘castle’ built 
secretly (behind straw bales) without planning permission.

This case illustrates the different ways we look at planners.

To some, they are bullies who spend taxpayers’ 
money stopping people doing what they want. To 
others, they provide valuable protection against 
greedy developers, inconsiderate neighbours, ugly 
buildings and loss of open space. The truth is somewhere in the middle.
Robert and Linda Fidler stand in front of their pride and joy,

Lavish: Robert and Linda Fidler stand in front of 
their pride and joy, Honeycrock Castle, as they 
vow they will defend it from the bulldozers

Planning is primarily a matter for local councils 
but as an MP I am often approached about planning 
disputes. Great passions are aroused by the 
approval of a neighbour’s extension that blocks 
out light, overlooks the garden or is just ugly.

People feel equally passionate when their own application is turned down.

Or it could be a developer, who wants to put up a 
block of houses creating traffic and parking 
problems and reducing green space. The developer 
will claim the project provides badly needed 
homes. If those are for the homeless, the 
mentally ill or ex-prisoners the emotional temperature rises on both sides.

Most difficult of all are big developments – a 
new town or estate, a motorway, a power station 
or an airport expansion. Quality of life is set 
against wider economic interests.

These questions arouse deep feelings. While there 
is little we can do as individuals to save the 
planet, we can exercise some control over our 
local environment. That is why public meetings on 
big issues – even the Iraq War – attract dozens 
while proposals to allow housing on playing 
fields or a police custody suite in a residential area pack in hundreds.

Development also touches on our deep attachment 
to home ownership. When people have mortgaged to 
the hilt to buy a home and poured their energies 
into DIY, they will fight to the last ditch against planning blight.

Most of us are deeply ambivalent about 
development. We want to do our own thing with our 
own homes; but we live very close together in a 
society with rules and want to see people who 
cynically break them – like Mr Fidler – put in their place.

We value our freedom to drive and park; it is 
other people who create parking problems and 
congestion. We value our own property 
improvements; it is other people who ‘overdevelop’.

We want new jobs; but not a factory down the road 
or a windmill or aircraft noise keeping us awake. 
We poke fun at NIMBY – Not In My Back Yard – 
syndrome, but we are all NIMBYs. Planning is 
about striking a balance between expansion and 
conservation. There will never be a ‘right’ answer.

Many people are left with a lingering sense of 
injustice and a grudge against the council. 
Sometimes they suspect officials and councillors 
of being corrupt – though corruption is worse in 
national than local politics. Sometimes party politics muddies the waters too.

One difficult issue is retrospective approval for 
those who built without permission. Sometimes 
neighbours are anxious to see ‘punishment’ for an 
‘illegal’ building and are frustrated that the 
system allows retrospective application. Mr 
Fidler has discovered, the hard way, that 
deliberately breaking the rules has painful consequences.

But I have sympathy for some of my constituents 
fighting off a similar fate: houseboat owners who 
built multi-storey boats having been initially 
told that the rules allowed it; the family who 
built a porch only a few inches too wide; a woman 
told to remove her new roof because the tiles 
were the wrong shade of red. Genuine mistakes 
should be treated sympathetically.

The appeals system is also unfair.

A developer can appeal against a rejection of 
planning permission leading to a review by a 
government inspector. But if an objector loses 
there is no right of appeal. So there is a bias towards developers.

Big supermarkets routinely apply, are turned 
down, appeal, lose, reapply, are turned down at 
appeal and appeal again until they get their way. 
That is harassment and bullying. But the small 
shopkeepers affected by superstores cannot appeal 
once a decision has gone the wrong way.

And in future big projects will be fast-tracked 
through a quango to bypass the objectors.

The Government has created an unaccountable 
monster. If a big corporation with Government 
backing decides your area is right for an 
incinerator, an airport or a nuclear power station, you will be powerless.

The system is fiercely protective of conservation 
areas, national parks and anywhere hosting 
badgers, bats, snakes or newts (or which attracts 
the attention of Prince Charles).

The Green Belt is still largely respected. But 
for millions of people in pleasant but 
unpretentious towns there are fewer safeguards. 
‘Garden grabbing’ by developers is a particular worry.

Planning can be tiresome, bureaucratic and 
sometimes painful – as for Mr Fidler with his 
21st Century castle. But without it our quality of life would be far worse.
    * Vince Cable is the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman

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