Planning law must change

South Warwickshire Environmental Association is a local group which — among other things — is strongly opposing new sand and gravel quarries around the A46 at Broom and Dunnington. Essentially, Mexican company Cemex gained planning approval about 25 years ago for a long neglected quarry at Marsh Farm, on the condition that they reinstated the land after works were complete. Although this reinstatement has never taken place, they are now looking for permission to quarry a short distance away. In all, there are six sand and gravel sites earmarked for these kinds of works in Bidford, Salford Priors and Harvington, among others. If you are not local, you need to understand that these are rural villages of extraordinary charm and beauty.

I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of the local campaign. You can follow the news at the Stratford Herald, or on the association’s website; if you are local, I do urge you to support it. But my concern right now is our antiquated UK planning system which, in my experience, penalises the honest and serves the well-lawyered, well-funded, and the simply brutal.

First off, planning decisions which have a disproportionate effect at a very local level are made at a distance. Broom’s planning decisions are not made by Broom Parish Council, nor even by Stratford District Council. They are made by the planning committee of Warwickshire County Council. In most cases, it means those making the decisions have neither local knowledge nor connection. True, both the Parish and District Councils can play an advisory role but, as we have seen in this particular instance, things can go wrong with this process, leaving local people no avenue to voice their concerns.

Second, there is no linkage between fulfilment of previous conditions and the granting of new approval. How can Cemex possibly be allowed to dig a new quarry when they didn’t finish (or even start) the reinstatement of the old land? Simply, because there is nothing to make them. If they were selling a product to the public — for example, a car, or computer software — and failed to comply with previous conditions placed on them, then the Office of Fair Trading, the courts, or even the European Union would impose punitive fines and ban them from further sales. If they were a private citizen who — for example — failed to abide by a Noise Abatement Order, then they would be given an Anti Social Behaviour Order, and if they failed to comply with that, would face a fine or prison. If they were a motorist, they would eventually lose their driving license. No such linkage is applied in planning law.

Third, all the money is on the side of those who make money. I remember vividly attending a planning appeal at another local authority, where the planning committee had turned down a proposal for a new housing development, and the speculative builders had immediately insisted on appealing. The council brought its own employed solicitor, who looked tired and worn down. The builders brought a smart QC — a silk, in fact — from London. Once the decision was overturned, as it inevitably was, since the council did not have resources to invest in defending it, the QC then demanded that all the costs of the appeal be met by the council. The request was granted. This was (to me) an extraordinary example of a quasi-judicial process thwarting the will of the electorate’s elected members. I subsequently learned that this was in fact quite common. It means that we, the electorate, are funding the means for our wishes to be ignored.

This is all exacerbated by the kind of quarrying targets that we find in the minerals core strategy. And, of course, we have seen the kind of flouting of local process that happened with the proposed imposition of the Long Marston Eco-Town.

What should be done?

At the moment, planning law is both confused and confusing. It is unsurprising that so many appeals by prospective builders and quarriers are upheld, since they are able to invest much more time in delving through the law to find grounds to overturn a decision. Elected councillors are not legal experts, nor should they required to be. Rather, their duty is to exercise their judgment on behalf of the entire community. To balance the needs of economy with the needs of local people to live quiet lives, unhindered and unimpeded by money-making ventures, is a political decision, not a legal one. If the councillors get it wrong, the electors are free to tell them so at the ballot box.

We do not need further amendments to planning law, but, rather a new simple, definitive system designed to make planning decisions easy to make, and restrictions easy to enforce — with penalties which are greater than the profits a company might make by flouting them. If you go to the government’s Planning Portal, and type the term ‘quarry’ into their search, you find 694 separate results. True, a number of these are news items, but every news item is included because it partially sets a precedent.

We also need to dramatically alter the balance of risk and reward in favour of the citizen, against materials extractors and speculative builders. In general, for most types of business in Great Britain, the balance is about right. Companies need to be able to bring new products to market and sell them, both to satisfy the consumer and in order to turn a profit which puts money into the economy. But for planning, that balance is heavily skewed. This is particularly an issue because the results of poor planning decisions are with us for decades or even centuries. I’m told that it will take 25 years before the Marsh Farm land would be back to normal if reinstatement started today. Very few businesses in the modern world will survive 25 years, leaving residents with nowhere to turn if reinstatements are not made.

Finally, we need to reassess what we really want to do with the landscape of Britain. On current strategies, we are perpetually increasing the number of houses, quarries and industrial plants. Do we really need to do so? Perhaps — but we ought to have the debate. Do we really need to continue to do so on green-field sites, while large swathes of urban areas are left to become wasteland? I think not. But it is naturally much more profitable to build on green-field sites than to work with all the pitfalls of building on former factories. Everybody knows this: you will not find a politician, planner or bureaucrat anywhere who wants to build on green-field as a preference to brown-field. But our planning system gives little true support to this view.

While we know what we should do, our system aids those who wish do to what we wish they wouldn’t. And this must change.