September 29th, 2016

Time to rethink planning committees

Time to rethink planning committees Time to rethink planning committees
Updated: 4:10 pm, May 07, 2015

A STRATFORD District Council planning committee recently rejected adaptations to a Welford home which would have allowed a young disabled man to stay with his family instead of being forced into care.

As policy once again triumphs over common sense, Observer man Steve Hayes asks ‘is it time for us to abolish planning committees?’.

FROM time to time it is hard to believe one’s eyes and one’s ears.

For anyone gifted with common sense or empathy, a recent meeting of Stratford District Council’s east area planning committee would surely have been such an occasion.

Last month we reported on the desperate situation faced by the family of local man Tony Hands and his disabled son John. After battling for years to combine looking after the 18-year-old at the family’s home with a full-time job as a postman, it had all become too much for Tony, who feared he may have to put the teenager into care.

A solution looked to be at hand in the form of adaptations to Tony’s parents’ home in Welford to allow the whole family to live together and secure John’s future.

But unfortunately, by virtue of the decision of eight councillors, that future now looks rather bleak.

“The development is not consistent with policy.” members said repeatedly, in reference to the plans put forward to adapt a garage building at John’s grandparents’ home so that Tony, John and his mum Amanda could live there.

And following a very brief discussion, the committee approved the recommendation of officers to refuse the application.

Just one member, Coun Christopher Mills, had the decency to value the plight of the family above the need to follow planning regulations to the letter.

Not only is this a decision which will rankle with any reasonable person, it raises a very serious question – if it’s all about policy, in these straitened times where we are constantly reminded by our local authorities that every penny counts, what is the point in planning committees?

If all members are willing to do is rubber stamp the recommendations of full-time, tax-payer funded experts employed to put forward the policy reasons why an application should be approved or rejected, what is the need for a group of councillors to meet, again at the expense of the tax-payer, to merely ratify what they have said?

Surely the whole point of a committee is to interpret the policy, take into account the unique circumstances of each application and decide if there are common sense reasons why a different decision to the one the officer recommends may be appropriate. That meshing of law and policy with reason was presumably the guiding principle behind the committee structure and something which members have strangely managed to do on many occasions when the proposals put before them are politically sensitive.

Let’s go to an extreme for a moment and imagine ourselves, perverse as it may seem as Stratfordians, living in a world where planning regulations don’t exist and decisions (God forbid) were made on the basis of what felt right.

Who in their right mind would deny a family facing a situation like this the right to happiness? Who would deny a severely disabled 18-year-old, who has no doubt faced more challenges in his short life than many of the considerably older councillors on committee will have done in theirs, the chance of a better life?

I can hear the gasps of NIMBYs everywhere at the mere suggestion that planning should be unregulated and in reality I suggest nothing of the sort.

If the family had asked to build a four-bedroom home on the doorstep of Shakespeare’s Birthplace one could of course understand the reticence. But here we have changes to an existing building which have been refused on the basis the site is outside of the village and would therefore mean the family was reliant on a car.

We are presumably to believe this is because of the potentially negative impact on the environment and the road network. Yet little attention appears to have been given to the fact the family currently has to drive to and from the home to which these plans apply several times a day. Something which would be eliminated if the move went ahead as planned.

The correct implementation of planning law is an integral pillar of a local authority’s work, particularly in a place with the heritage of Stratford, and no-one would dispute the need for robust policies to guide this.

But if all the councillors on our planning committees are willing to do is rigidly enforce them, without any heed to the unique circumstances of each application, then they have rendered themselves obselete.

The ability of committee members to apply common sense to applications and question the logic of officers’ recommendations should not be reserved for proposals where political gain can be made.

If this cannot be delivered, then perhaps the time has come to let the experts decide.

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