Pete Broadbent responds to issues of Development Control
One of the problems of being a councillor, a local politician involved in the local government of a district, is that you have to learn on the job, and pick up as you go along. You lack the training of the professionals who advise you, and are trying desperately to understand what is going on as you make decisions week by week.
So I speak from a layman's perspective with the acquired knowledge of only four years. I hope what I have to say will give you some insight as to how one politician sees the planning process, and my own part in it.
Chris Caddy (Chapter 6 here) last year left us with a very gloomy prognosis that provides our theme:
'Planning as practised by the planner is in danger of being reduced to a catalogue of rules of thumb, a few well worn standards and a predictably negative response to anything new'.
I hope the majority of us are here because we believe that was unduly pessimistic. As Christian practitioners we declare this world to be God's world, where Jesus Christ is Lord, where we confess him, where we find our true humanity as we discover our true relationship with God our creator, both as individuals in community and as stewards of creation, where we seek to advance the kingdom of God in every aspect of our lives.
It is positive action that we are involved in, and it is actually unfair to start with such a negative theme, because Chris did draw out positive ways in which Planning could be used and viewed from a Christian perspective. You have asked me to do something similar from the perspective of one particular Christian politician in one particular locality, in one particular party.
My talk falls into seven sections.
(B) My Christian presuppositions;
(C) A Christian politician's approach to planning;
(D) Council policy making;
(E) The major issues that face our Borough;
(G) Some conclusions.
Last year, Chris Sugden (Chapter 4 here) introduced you to the idea of being inductive, with 'Inductive Theology'. Starting from the situation, you move towards conclusions by taking on board Scripture, reflecting on your situation and Scripture, and then moving into action. You thus create what is called a 'hermeneutical circle', where you are doing, reflecting, acting, and then reflecting again.
My context is Islington, a compact Borough, about four miles by three miles, in the north of London, with very little derelict or undeveloped land, and so not experiencing the pressures that many Urban areas have in that respect. It is an area of high urban deprivation, a Partnership area (under the Urban Programme), and has been rate capped for three years now.
It has all the problems of an inner city Borough. Homelessness is a huge problem now rapidly increasing in inner London, and we rehoused 2,200 families as homeless in the last year. Unemployment runs at about 18% according to Government figures, but more in reality. The ethnic population comprises about 17%. A huge elderly population lives alone. About 6.3% of our households in the 1981 census figures are overcrowded (that is, with more than one person per room).
8.4% of our people are single parents, and the housing stock, as in many urban areas, is running down. Of 75,000 dwellings, 41,000 are in council ownership and 25,000 in private ownership. That is the context, and I therefore approach Town Planning differently than if I were operating in the Vale of White Horse (Chris Caddy - Chapter 6) or Brighton (Peter Robottom - Chapter 8).
B. Christian Presuppositions
This is not the time or place for a mini lecture on a Christian approach to politics. If you want to follow my particular approach, I have written a chapter describing it in a book called Hope for the Church of England, edited by Gavin Reid, and published at the end of 1985.
In that chapter, called 'The Political Imperative', I set out my own view as to how Christian politics might work. But on this occasion I just want to outline my presuppositions as a Christian in politics and how they bear on the way I work as a councillor. They spring very much from the same concerns that Chris Sugden was sharing last year.
First, God does care passionately for the poor, and that leads me to work with a bias to the poor. I therefore reflect particularly on the Old Testament understanding of a God who is passionately committed to His people and among His people to the poor, to the widows and the orphans. I want to share those perspectives and bring them into my life daily. No doubt many of you are trying to work that out in your particular context.
Second, God is concerned for justice. That justice is connected with His righteousness and His holiness, but also has a social dimension which is collective and is worked out in the community. In a lovely picture David Sheppard used, God's justice isn't the blind justice which weighs things in the scales and tries to work out which one comes down the right way, but God's bias is bending over in favour of those who need His justice.
Thirdly, God was incarnate in Jesus Christ, He lived among us, and that gives us an incarnational approach to politics. To be a Christian politician is no abstract distancing but a concrete incarnational reality. The God who became a human being is the God whom we serve and seek to mirror and follow, and our model of mission is the Jesus Christ who came into this world as the one who acted in mission in incarnation. That means that I am in the inner city to be involved in the inner city; I cannot live there but work somewhere else; live there but ignore my community; live there but ignore my context - I have to be incarnate and rooted in it, of which more later.
Fourthly, God's redemption in Jesus Christ implies a reconciliation of all things: Colossians 1:20 tells us that Christ's redemption was not just to reconcile individuals (though obviously it starts there) but the whole universe - all things in heaven and on earth - back to God. Therefore the whole created order which we affirm as being God's creation, is also redeemable in that one day that created order will be redeemed in newness and fullness in God's kingdom.
Fifthly, I therefore work as a politician for whom the Kingdom of God is central to the way I want to operate in the present, but for whom it is also the sign of our future hope, that one day there will be the totality of the new creation. In the interim we work with signs of the Kingdom which point towards that new creation, and seek to build signs which will show others what it will be like one day when there is a new humanity, a new heaven and a new earth.
C. A Christian Politician's Approach to Town Planning
So far I have been on fairly firm ground because theology is my area - but now I move into Planning, for which I have no training, and have to work it out as I go along. I have evolved six themes in my approach to planning, trying very hard to make sure they are Christian themes. When you are a member of a political party, the pressure is on you to follow the manifesto, the party lines and the whip, and you are constantly being pushed into the mould of that party.
Christian politics should not be like that; the manifesto of each party should come under scrutiny. My own party has a manifesto which I follow in the main; but where there are things that I believe are wrong, then as a Christian I criticize them as such.
Therefore I want to try and work out how a Christian, first and foremost, should do planning as a politician. If that coincides and overlaps with my Christian socialism, then all well and good, but we should test first from Scripture how a Christian might do Christian Planning. This suggests six themes.
First, Town Planning must be a 'whole person' exercise. If we are made in the image of God, male and female, and if we reflect on the Hebrew understanding of the way in which God revealed Himself, that we are whole persons and not schizoid, not body in one place and spirit somewhere else, then planning must reflect that. Environments and context are crucial to life, particularly life in the inner city, and I must be passionately concerned for a person's wholeness and humanity, and my planning must therefore want to work out how a person's wholeness, and how a community's wholeness and solidarity can be reflected and worked out.
Now obviously there are ironies attached to that because one of the things about improving the environment in the inner cities is precisely that the inner city changes. You may therefore actually be reflecting different priorities from those of the people, the poor, whom you are most concerned to help. What happens in a Borough like Islington is that you improve the environment and as a result step on the accelerator for that glorious and quite revolting process called gentrification where the young rich move back in to the cost of the local poor, of which Islington is the pioneer. But the whole person must be cared for, and in doing that whole person exercise, your planning must reflect the whole community's aspirations and not just those of a particular part of the community.
Second, if the whole person is involved, then planning also involves the community. What more than anything else Planners in inner London are fighting for is to make sure the community doesn't get left out of what's being done to them in the Planning process. Christians cover this from two angles, first through the 'whole person' aspect, but also because we want to defend democracy and involvement as a way of dealing with power in a Christian way.
If God has given power to human beings to exercise, then we have to ask questions as to how that power is best apportioned. There are arguments, which again cannot be developed in full detail here, about how democracy of a developed nature can begin to apportion power. William Temple called this 'a secondary and derivative good', which Christians should try to defend as being a useful part of political process. Therefore Christians in Planning will see democracy in terms of reconciling interests, and as an instrument of justice to achieve the development of the environment in ways that are acceptable.
Thirdly, Christians see excellence and creativity as the expression of our personhood as people in the image of God. Therefore every Christian politician should want to be taking good advice on what is excellent, listening to those who have that sort of advice to give, and wanting to make sure that development does indeed reflect God's creativity.
Obviously that is very difficult; we all know the day-to-day problems of what it means to start looking at style and design issues in Development Control (and in fact you are not allowed to any more!). Nonetheless there is a real sense that a community can feel achievement when something is rehabilitated or built in a creative way, and the Christian should be looking to make sure that that reflects God's glory.
We have had such an experience in which we remodelled and re-opened as a Business Centre the fine old Victorian Royal Agricultural Hall in Islington; this was one of our major projects. The Christian should feel good about that kind of thing coming to fruition, because it is taking what was derelict and seeing the creative urge make it fine and good again, because we are part of God's image, and the whole of humanity, whether or not they acknowledge God, reflects that creativity.
Fourthly, we'll see planning as an instrument of attainment of justice. That may mean that we come into conflict with government policy, and in Islington we are used to that! It does mean that Christian politicians will be looking for ways of circumventing the unjust, if you cannot actually oppose it. I really do believe there is a fundamental injustice in the whole tenor of current government circulars which say that 'all development shall be likely to be approved unless there are good reasons for finding ways of turning it down'.
Central Government's Circular 22/80 is fundamentally unjust because it is putting the onus on the developer to produce what is right and good, and allowing the politician and the local community to have very little influence on that. That is not what I see Town Planning as being. Obviously, therefore, if the politician believes that is not the best way of handling development he will find ways of creeping round it.
Fifthly, springing from incarnational theology, the Christian will want to be incarnated in the community. Local councillors get a lot of stick, but one of the things we have got to offer is that we are rooted in the community. We know the area we live in, most of us represent wards where we live or are in proximity to, and we therefore have a vested interest in caring about that community.
Admittedly there is great unevenness throughout the country across all parties about the way in which politicians do that, and you may think of some of the people on your planning committee and be thinking, 'O yeah! I don't believe a word he's saying about that!' But it does seem that the Christian should be arguing that here is a very good model, that we are thrown up - that's an unfortunate phrase! - by the community; spewed out of its mouth through the democratic process, and we are local and we should be speaking for our locality.
Incarnation bespeaks that particular model of representation, and the reason why I believe in councillors more than in MPs is that they tend to be in the community and stay there. Once they have been elected, MPs often up and root themselves in London, living little in their constituencies, and I worry about that. Politics and politicians should have that representative role, and be seen to be doing so, and should have to live with the problems that they face week by week, as well as the joys.
Sixthly, Christians have an interest in arguing for planning and rationality, revealing God's character as the rational creative God, not in a humanistic way, but as the God who thinks His thoughts into being and thus created the universe and sustains it with His powerful hand. We need to say that planning can be part of that creative process, provided it is founded on good philosophy rather than bad philosophy. I'm not saying that God is trying to model Abercrombie, the British town planning pioneer who prepared the 1944 Greater London Plan, but we should be saying that planning our environment does contribute to our stewardship of creation, as a reflection of God's stewardship of his creation.
D. Council Initiatives
This is where Christian politicians do have to start having dialogue with themselves, and with their church and community, because when you move from Christian insights to the implementation of political party policy, then the problems come. Let me just speak about five initiatives our Council is taking.
London Councils are elected on a four year basis, so we have four years in which to seek to implement anything. That is much more satisfactory than having a third of the council elected every year, with its potential for more frequent changes in control. That is a personal view, but continuity is important, though communities might not want to live the four years with what they have elected!
We have recently produced a paper which sets out our strategy for the next four years. It has five themes which relate to the way in which a Christian might want to operate, or certainly how this Chair of Planning would want to.
First, we have an anti-poverty strategy. We are trying to deal with the fact that we have a huge number of poor. At first sight it might seem that Welfare Benefits and the like issues are not issues where Planning has an input to make. However, if a council has a huge number of people who are genuinely poor in its catchment area, then all its policies and all its operations should slant themselves towards anti-poverty strategy.
In the context of London that clearly means that we have to ensure we are still providing both work and accommodation for the poor. In our area that means low rent accommodation, and jobs for unskilled manual workers. We will consider in due course what the impact of those two particular things is, but clearly that means that our Development Control practices have to try to achieve those kinds of ends. If we genuinely want the poor to be serviced then we have to do something about it, and the anti-poverty strategy will intend, not only to alleviate poverty, but to make sure people are housed and employed, because that is one way of making sure poverty is overcome.
Secondly we have an Equality Strategy. Not surprisingly, Labour Councils all over the country are looking at equality issues - equality for women, equality for people with disabilities, equality for ethnic minorities. We are trying very hard to work out how that involves the Development Control system. We are actually better off in London than most, because the Greater London Council, before it finally had its throat cut, did a lot of work on researching how those kinds of people are disadvantaged by the Development Control system, and the planning system in general.
Clearly we have to try and follow through our delivery of service to those groups in our society in order to make sure that it works. That again is a fundamentally Christian thing. If there are people in our society who dis-benefit from the system in its operation, if the bureaucracy isn't being even handed in the way it claims to be, then we must redress that.
The third strand, which in Islington is very well advanced, is the Decentralisation of Services. We have decentralised our services in Islington to 24 neighbourhood offices, though not all the council services are there yet. Planning isn't, although it's getting there, like British Rail! But the philosophy behind this is that anybody in Islington can walk half a mile to their local neighbourhood office and get information on Housing, Social Services, Welfare Benefits, as well as getting advice and information on other aspects of council services and that includes Planning.
Around those 24 neighbourhood offices there will be 24 neighbourhood forums, which will discuss issues in their communities and eventually take decisions. We haven't got to the stage yet of actually making them operative in terms of taking decisions - that's happening in the next year or so - but it means they will be taking decisions on their environment including, if they want to, Planning Applications. Therefore we are delivering power to people.
Fourthly, we have a strategy on crime and crime prevention. Islington recently had a major survey of people's attitudes towards crime and the police, which showed clearly that environmental issues are one of the foremost problems for people in the inner city. Their built environment makes them afraid to come out at night, makes them worried about what's going to happen to them, makes their environment a place where they don't feel secure. Clearly Development Control is a very important weapon in that, because each Planning Application may have implications for security and crime, and for people's ability to survive in the inner city with peace of mind.
The fifth thing we are trying to do is maintain our capital programmes. Although that might not seem to have much relevance to Development Control in fact it does, because we are a rate-capped council in
A Neighbourhood Centre
The Bishop of Stepney visiting a Neighbourhood Centre
which resources are always being called into question, and in many councils Development Control is the 'Aunt Sally' or the 'Cinderella' - or both! Development Control is not usually seen as a high priority service.
Christians have to speak out against that, because if you believe Development Control to be an important instrument, and that Christian planning of your environment should have an impact, you have to fight for that in terms of the overall council strategy. The lack of credence and importance that Councils in general give to Development Control and Planning worries me. I fear that quite often the councillor who has nowhere else to go gets put on planning committees! You probably think that too! I hope you don't get all wallies, clearly stupid, but you sometimes feel that!
E. Major issues
You asked me to be practical, and so I will be in this last section. There are eight major issues which continue to impose themselves on our agenda in inner city London:-
1) The Yuppie invasion has to be No. 1, because the effect on our inner cities of young upwardly mobile professionals coming in, buying up and taking over, is very serious. London house prices are now rising by 19-20% per year, and therefore most of our private rented accommodation is disappearing. Those 25,000 dwellings in the private rented sector will soon be an owner-occupied 25,000.
They'll also be sub-divided and become more than 25,000 units, which has already happened on a large scale in areas like Barnsbury and Canonbury, which are infamous for gentrification in our area. That puts a major pressure on Development Control in trying to ensure that our housing stock is retained in the right form, and I'll speak a little later about how we try to do that through the Development Control process.
The incomer to the inner city pushes out the working class people who have lived there for years and whose predecessors have lived there for years. It means that they have no chance of a home when they get married and they have to go and live in somewhere dreadful like the new city of Milton Keynes. That's quite a horrific future for anybody!
2) The decline of the North East London Industrial sector is almost as important an issue. It has been well charted. Those of you who watched the programme on London Weekend Television, 'Tomorrowland', which dealt with the crisis in housing, industry and development in the South East Region, will have seen very clearly the impact of 'golden triangle' development on the West side of London and the resultant decline of the eastern side of London and the counties east of London. North east London is particularly suffering from the fact that its industrial base has virtually fallen apart; there's not much to replace it, and we have to find creative ways of doing that.
3) The pressure of a city fringe location. I will be talking to the delegate from the City later on, when I get a chance, about their policies, and how they impact on us! But being next door to the City of London creates its own pressures for cheap office developments in the Finsbury area of our Borough, and that puts a huge impact, once again, on fairly large working class housing areas, being over-run by office development.
4) Problems of conservation. We have a fairly ageing Victorian housing stock, some of it extremely fine, and we have to find ways in which to try to preserve that against the constant demand for extensions, or mansards. Everyone's got a mansard these days, I don't know what the next trend will be! I'm fed up with mansards - can't you Architects find something else? We have roof extension policies and so forth, and 14 Conservation Areas, and are struggling very hard to preserve those very fine buildings.
5) Equality issues. I've already mentioned how we try to deal with access to the Planning system, with our large ethnic population. How do we ensure they understand what's going on, how do we make sure that they are not marginalised from the Planning system by not knowing how to operate it? How do we make sure that their particular businesses - we are the centre of the great clothing trade in North London - don't have an adverse impact on the community because they are located right next door to residential areas?
6) Planning for a decent environmental quality and security. This has already been outlined in Section D.
7) Ensuring a decent quality of housing renewal. We have estates all over the area which we want to rehabilitate and bring up to standard. We probably have the largest housing programme of any London borough, and we are spending twice our HIP allocation on capital housing schemes. In doing so we have to ensure quality as well as quantity. It isn't enough to do up council estates, but to do them well, creating an environment which will last for more than five or ten years.
8) Retail Policies. Obviously we have the problems which you all are facing. London has a particular difficulty with lack of retail policies, and the impact of out-of-town shopping on our own shopping centres. In our Borough only 33% of people have cars and the 66% who don't have to rely on buses to get to the major retail centre at Brent Cross. If there is a mass move out to the M25 in terms of retail development, we will have no access to any decent shopping at all, if our own retail centres fall apart.
So those are the major issues. They'll be ringing bells with some of you and have no relation at all to some of the more rural problems, but you can make your own shortlist.
F. What response do we make?
I've got five headings about the way in which we can make a response.
1. Development Control should not be marginalised. There is a fundamental problem about how we are doing things today. You cannot separate Development Control from highways, planning, environmental improvements, local planning, or strategic development. Councils need to make sure they structure themselves so that Development Control is not marginalised. That is a fundamental insight about the way in which we operate.
Many of us see Development Control as a little thing you just get on with in a sub-committee, and you chuck the applications through - and that also happens to the Development Control section in our planning department! Quite often they're a separate entity, organised totally without relationship to the rest. Our Development Control section does not get enough policy input, but they ought to, and we need to deal with that. If we believe Development Control is the most obvious way in which we shape our environment, we must ensure it is fully integrated with the rest of our Planning Department structures.
At committee, therefore, we shall frequently be pulling Development Control into the centre of things. We are reviewing our committee structure in Islington, and we are actually considering pulling all our planning applications back from the Planning Application Sub-committee into the main Development Committee, because we believe that is the right focus for it. Thus we shall be doing our planning policy along with our applications, and councillors will see the two as being related.
Within the Department that is also true; it is currently being restructured for decentralisation, forming area teams to service the various neighbourhood offices. We are going to pull together within those teams highways, local plans and development control into one section, working together with a shared administration. We believe that if you co-locate and co-line manage, people will talk to each other, and if they talk to each other they will begin to do the job better!
Now it may be that you are all light years ahead, and already doing that in your local authorities - and I rather hope you are - but it does seem to me that to talk about Development Control on its own does lead, if you're not careful, to precisely the conclusions you drew last time. We shouldn't do that, and one of the ways of rehabilitating Development Control is to ensure that it is mainline.
2) Development Control has got to be policy-oriented. I'm sure you'll be pleased to hear this. I'm sure you suffer from councillors who haven't got a policy in their heads, and who bend to local whim all the time. Councillors have got to be persuaded that policy is the only way to run Development Control rationally, and that to take decisions on the basis of who last bent their ear is an absolutely farcical way of carrying out one of the major functions of any local council.
The way we should do that, it seems to me, is that you have to make sure the Local Plan is continually updated. That is probably the biggest barrier, because many councils won't put their resources or time or money into doing that.
When we were elected in 1982 we had a very recently adopted Statutory Local Plan for the whole Borough, and I forced our local plans section to go through the nasty process of updating that over the next four years, to bring it into line with our policies and with the GLDP proposed alterations, so we actually got things like equality issues in it. We now have a robust Local Plan which will stand up at inquiries.
Those of you who read The Planner will know that there was a very interesting article about the relationship between Development Plans, Development Control and appeals (October 1986, volume 72, pages 11- 15). The conclusions of that study are that if there is a written local policy, the local authority is usually supported on appeal by the inspector, even if national policies are mentioned by the appellant.
If you have the policies in your Local Plan it will stand up, it's robust. Therefore my argument for Development Control being policy-oriented seems to me to have consistency. I think our planning applications sub-committee over-rides officers' advice very very rarely. We might go against one recommendation at any one meeting, at the very most, and probably less often than that.
When you are policy-oriented, life can actually work out like that, though there is a danger then that the officers run the committee. The councillors have therefore got to make sure they ask the right questions about what the officers are saying, when they haven't spotted the policies properly (which occasionally they don't). It is illuminating when that actually begins to operate properly. So: policy-oriented Development Control.
3. Development Control is right to be negative in some cases. We should be arguing that there is a right kind of negativity. Just three examples of the way in which we're negative and are doing something which is important.
First example: City pressure for offices is speculative: it isn't creating new jobs, it isn't 'high-tech' offices. To resist it we have declared parts of Finsbury (the old southern end of the borough) an Industrial Priority Area, and we manage to resist change of use to class 2 offices time and time again because we have a robust industrial policy and it holds up. The difficulty is, it's not promoting anything, because they could be either empty offices or empty industrial. And they are empty - but at least they are not being changed into speculative offices.
Now you may say that is a very negative view. The reason why we're holding out on that, and researching furiously at the same time to find out what we can do, is that we want to relate it to the need for employment regeneration in the Borough, where offices do us no good whatsoever.
The only growth we have in employment when offices are allowed is in the cleaning area, because office cleaning jobs are the only things provided for Islingtonians. In terms of tackling the long-term unemployment of our Borough, change of use to offices does us not a whit of use, because the people who come to work in those offices come from outside the Borough.
We therefore have a policy, which sounds negative, to reserve those buildings for a use which can be worked up in terms of industrial regeneration. That is a current strategy being worked on by other council committees. That sounds like a negative head-in-the-sand view, but you have to be negative sometimes in order to make sure there will be jobs in the future, because it is quite clear that there won't be if you let those places go to offices.
Second example, on housing stock: we have a very robust 'small dwellings unit' policy which makes sure that any conversion of large Victorian dwellings (of which most of London is made) ensures that at least one two- or three-bedroom unit is created. There is a presumption that you will not have all one-bedroom units. That is the only way to stop the yuppies taking over totally, because you're still leaving some family housing for inner city areas.
Again, this sounds negative, but the developers live with it. They all come in with acceptable conversion schemes, so we are keeping some semblance of family dwellings in those conversion jobs. It's important to hold the line until the local housing market becomes a little more sensible and some of our own local folk can get on the house ownership ladder again. At present they can't, and the wage-price gap is horrific, but we have to maintain the stock for them for the future.
The third example again is density: avoiding over-development and swamping the inner city when services are not there to cope with it. We have rigorous guidelines and planning standards, which are non-statutory but seem to work; they are fairly close to the Parker-Morris standard.
We also have a policy against backland development that is successfully holding out against all the little infills and nastinesses which developers can produce, which bring in the yuppies, and could actually alter the whole character of our area. Resisting them is a way of preserving it. It's negative, but it works.
4. Development Control is positive in seeking to achieve justice. I have already spoken about our equality policies. We are therefore much more rigorous in Development Control when it comes to things like mobility standards for the disabled than our predecessors have been. We want to ensure that such matters are actually implemented.
That means we often delay an application beyond eight weeks to make sure that these requirements are taken on board by developers. In fact we find them very willing to do so. We have also taken to slightly more unusual negotiations on 'Planning Gain'. For example, we have achieved a crèche in a large office development in the south of the Borough as 'Planning Gain' because there are lots of office workers who need that facility, so that is an identified need.
Again - it is not in the guidelines - you can't get it through the Circular - but we got it! It's an essential part of the overall effort to make sure equality policies are worked out in practice, and that we are getting the things the community needs. That crèche will be open to the public as well as to office workers.
5. Looking for a major rehabilitation of Development Control as a useful tool. I'm going to be slightly party-political for a moment. This government will not be in office for ever, so their attitude towards the destruction of Development Control will not last for ever. There will be a real chance in two, three or five years' time, when new governments and new philosophies take the ring, when the market economy is played out and that particular trendiness is gone, and when a new philosophy arises in society as it undoubtedly will - because these things all go in cycles - for pushing back the barriers that have been pushed against us, and going back to rational planning.
There are good reasons why Christians should be involved in working out the philosophy of that kind of approach again. Christians should be in there doing the work. I'm glad to see there are people here doing research today, because I hope Christians who have a vested interest in the good environment will be arguing for good Development Control in the future.
This is more about how I work than anything else. Councillors, if they are not careful, get into anecdotes about 'When I was at committee last week', so I'll try not to do that! Some of the things we try to do I have pushed on the Committee because they are Christian things to do. So, here are my personal conclusions about how it works operating as a councillor (and, obviously, you may not have this flexibility!).
1. Working for robustness. Robust policies which are comprehensible are worthwhile. Sitting through the revision of our Development Plan has made me familiar with our policies. A layman I may be, but at least I'm semi-informed on what I am going to do through those policies. Christians involved in the political arena need to ensure that they are policy-oriented and not pragmatism-oriented.
2. The importance of consultation. We believe passionately in consultation. We always do at least neighbour consultation by letter, and often do street-based consultations on major impact applications. It is a Christian thing to do to ensure that consultation is rigorous, and that people have a chance to understand fully what's happening to them.
That means simplifying consultation letters and making sure plans are available. We do this through the neighbourhood offices, so that they can come into the local office to see the plan. It means making site visits, if there is any doubt about a thing at all. It means ensuring that people know how they can use the system. It means listening to ward councillors about the problems in their area. I think that might push you over the eight weeks deadline! Never mind, it is more important to listen than to worry about that.
3. Listening at committee. We have an open committee. Anyone who is an objector or an applicant can come and address the committee on the application. They are given 3-5 minutes. We get through the business all the same: of 60 applications every 3 weeks, I suppose 20-30 of those will have people coming to address the committee, but in the end only about 20 occupy us for any length of time and we get through the rest very quickly.
Listening is a very Christian exercise. It's hearing where people are really at, what their real worries are. They cannot enunciate to the Planning Officer - in the way Planners want it to be put- what their real objection is. They may not know about daylighting standards, but they do know that somebody next door is building a massive great extension that is seriously going to affect them; they need to be able to come and tell you, so that you can hear and act.
Obviously, Officers will have done some work in terms of interpretation, but sometimes there's no match between what a person wants to say and what they can make the Officer presenting a case understand. Listening in that respect is therefore very important. Open committees we have found very very valuable. We couldn't go back on them now if we wanted to. We don't want to; we have been operating them now for four years, and it is very exciting to see the way in which people feel at least a bit more part of the process.
4. Mediation: another very Christian thing. We defer when we find there are facts which are in dispute. It delays, but it makes sure that we can get developer and objector together and try and get the matter sorted out. We obviously try and do that before committee if possible, but our officers are now trained to be mediators. They know that's the style we want to operate (and many of them wanted to operate it before, but weren't allowed to). That is a very Christian thing to do, to mediate, to try and weigh interests, to ensure that the unheard are heard.
5. Pro-activity is very important. This comes back to the problem about Development Control not being used. In Islington we run a regular development review committee which I chair, which goes through major sites and monitors progress, in both private and public sectors, so that we are ready to respond if developers come in with schemes. In other words, we know what our briefs for the sites will be when we want them to move. That should be orthodoxy. In practice in Local Government today, we're often too busy just getting on with the job of responding to each application coming in, so we have no understanding of what we actually want to do with the sites when they come up to us.
6. Seeing Development Control in its wider context. This impresses me more and more. Sitting on the London Planning Advisory Committee and the South East Regional Planning Conference has brought home to me the need for an overview of the strategic, and that in the end the only way we can get proper policies is not going to be Borough-wide. Islington can't be strategic on its own; London can't be strategic on its own. It's only a regional strategy that will work. The trend in both Liberal and Labour manifestos towards a balance between boroughs and regional assemblies does seem to me to begin to answer some of the questions being raised in planning at the moment.
Development Control cannot separate itself from that. The ordinary household extensions are not the be-all and end-all, because the householder extensions and all the other applications are being caused by what is happening in London and the South East region as a whole. So the strategic awareness has got to be there.
7. We must keep the channels open. It is important that there is more interchange between councillors, planners and architects than at present. The whole system is too adversarial, and architects now roll up to committee full of criticism, having got their appeals statements already sorted out.
That is not the way we should do our business, and I hope Christians will want to say that adversarial methods of dealing with this should be kept for appeals and appeals should be a resort we don't go to.
I note the tendency now to go for the duplicate application; submit two and appeal for non determination on one within eight weeks, whilst letting the Council determine the other - and see which is the best one they get! Now that seems to me totally out of order in respect of proper Development Control procedures, and just goes to show the way the system is out of kilter.
8. A last point: decentralisation. I believe in decentralisation as being one of the answers to all this. Giving local people power. I spoke earlier about the fact that we are looking towards neighbourhood forums as taking decisions on their own locality. That's a risk. It does mean that prejudice, interest groups and the like can be brought into the arena of determining what constitutes acceptable development.
But unless you give communities back to the local people, the local communities, certainly in the city, will begin to fall apart. We as Christians therefore need to give power back to people, and give them a share in their own environment. That includes Development Control.
From ACPA Newsletter No. 13 & 14, 1988-89, pp. 45-62.
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