Conference Message to Eric Pickles: Real Localism – Not ‘Token’ Localism!

The Yorkshire Planning Conference organised jointly by WARD and CPRE in central Leeds last Saturday was well attended by various community groups from the whole of Yorkshire:  North, East, South and West Ridings all sent representatives sharing common concerns about the adverse effects of national planning legislation upon the quality of life for people in their local areas.  Issues raised included the questionability of LDF housing target numbers (especially those of Leeds) for which no-one seemed to know how these figures had been calculated and on which data they were based. There was a consensus about the irony of the situation – with local authorities demanding that NDPs be ‘evidence-based’ – yet producing no substantial evidence themselves to justify their Core Strategy documents that  outline housing targets for the next 15 years.

The conference was addressed by Ben Stafford, Head of Campaigns at CPRE, who gave a concise overview of the planning situation nationally.  Godfrey Bloom, MEP for Yorkshire & Humberside, captivated the delegates with a presentation looking back to when localism really was concerned with local people deciding what is best for their area and when local councillors were elected, in an unpaid capacity, and carried out their civic duties from a sense of civic pride – usually in their spare time at evening meetings following a full days work.  David Lumb, Architecture519 and founder of the Leeds Sustainability Group, gave a visionary presentation on city centre South urban regeneration.  IF ONLY …..!!  Martin Hughes, Chairman Horsforth Civic Society and Jackie Thompson, Addingham Civic Society, outlined planning issues from Leeds and Bradford respectively.  The conference wound up with a very rebust performance from Pudsey MP, Stuart Andrew, who suffered a verbal barrage from concerned delegates sceptical about the benefits of the coalition’s Localism Act, the NPPF and the present new Growth & Infrastructure Bill soon to become law.

Many delegates expressed the view that all communities, including local councillors, should work together in common accord to lobby for change in the very unjust and biased laws in England which enable developers to trample over the wishes of local communities and feather their own nests with vast profits stemming from the rape of our greenfield sites.  There was common agreement that the NPPF which states ‘brownfield first’ is largely being ignored and the fact that some 50% of English local authorities do not have an LDF in place is making it easier still for the developers to grab greenfield sites.  In this respect David Cove, CPRE, Yorkshire, raised the case of the Leeds interim planning policy releasing two PAS sites in Oulton and Rothwell in South East Leeds.  It was commonly agreed that this sets a dangerous precedent and paves the way for the release of all the other PAS sites (approximately 36) across the whole of the Leeds region.

Delegates also strongly criticised the Inspectorate and the Appeals system.  The fact that one man from Bristol, with no real local knowledge, can overturn the democratic decisions of a democratically elected planning committee is to be highly deprecated and is a system in urgent need of reform or abolition.  The question was: ‘Why do we need an inspectorate?’  The developer already has unlimited ‘right of appeal’ by having the ability to submit an unlimited number of amended applications!  The delegates agreed that the impact of house building on local infrastructure – transport networks and the demand for school places, doctors, dentists etc – should be given full consideration before any housing development plans are agreed.

There was consensus that in Leeds, Bradford and Kirklees the thousands of houses standing empty should be renovated.  Stuart Andrew did say that the government had set aside money for this purpose but, as yet, there is little sign that Leeds with 15,500 empty properties boarded up and Bradford with 13,000 empty properties are using this money for this purpose.  Indeed, we do not know whether they have put in claims for this money!  In addition, there are currently across Leeds and Bradford some 37,500 planning permissions granted where work has yet to begin – not a single brick has yet been laid!  The feeling was that developers should be forced to build these before being allowed to apply for yet more planning permissions.  Some delegates suggested that when granting future planning permissions there should be an agreement that at least 50% of the development should be completed within two years.  This would go some way towards the prevention of ‘landbanking’ which is currently happening.  The conference also urged our MPs to lobby the government to support first-time buyers with 95% mortgages on older properties and not simply on new build.  There is something of an anomaly in the fact that, under present legislation, it is possible to obtain a 95% mortgage on a new build house costing up to £600,000!  Hardly the best way to solve the housing crisis.

Chairman, David Ingham, closed the conference by thanking speakers and delegates for their valuable individual contributions.  He emphasised that a very positive aspect of this inaugural conference was the way in which the varied community groups were prepared to co-operate in their campaign to reform planning legislation.  He felt that the conference had been an excellent networking opportunity for all who attended and that there should be a much greater effort from all to encourage joint co-operation from more locally elected councillors and MPs.  There is, after all, strength in unity.

David’s final words to Stuart Andrew MP were,

“Please take this message to Eric Pickles and George Osborne et al:  Present planning laws unfairly favour developers.  The Localism Act and the NPPF do not afford real power to local communities – it’s still really ‘top down’.  What we want is real localism – what we’ve got is ‘token’ localism.”