Planning is unique in being the only subject for which every level of government – from Parish Council to Parliament – has a statutory role. At whatever level they are taken, planning decisions can directly affect peoples lives and are often of major concern. Yet despite its wide-ranging importance, planning is very often a low priority subject for most politicians. Liberals see the present system as bureaucratic, unresponsive to public opinion, ineffective and too little concerned with the long-term well being of the environment.
In order to ensure local democracy, Liberals propose radical changes in the structure of local government which would have a direct bearing on planning procedures. Liberals believe that the planning system should be reorganized to meet today’s needs and that a proper structure for regional planning is essential. In all cases, decision making should be devolved to the most local tier of government practicable, with central government being confined to matters of national impact only. Economic and social issues must be considered alongside physical factors, and the system must be flexible enough to cope with regional diversities.
To be fair, any planning system must apply equally to all applicants. Therefore, planning authorities should be prohibited from granting themselves planning permission, except where it is subject to a major inquiry procedure.
With regard to planning applications, Liberals believe that the present emphasis on rapid decision-making is misplaced. In order to facilitate proper and sensitive planning decisions, Liberals call for:
- an increase in the length of time for decision-making on major developments;
- improvements in public notification and information;
- all substantial applications to be accompanied by an “Environmental Impact Statement”, identifying possible risks of pollution, or harmful effects on the habitat or amenities of the surrounding area;
- the appointment of specialist advisory groups, such as Disabled Advisory Committees, where appropriate.
The existing system of appeals is difficult to justify on grounds of either logic or equality. Applicants and objectors should have equal rights of appeal – against the granting of planning permission as well as refusal – and should also be able to ask the Ombudsman to investigate. Appeals should be dealt with by next tier of authority, not by the Secretary of State.
Liberals maintain that the present system of major planning enquiries has degenerated into a nightmare, and occasioned severe disruptions by frustrated, disadvantaged objectors, who see the system as little more than an expensive, lengthy and largely meaningless exercise in public relations. Liberals believe that such inquiries should be fair and accessible to anyone with an interest irrespective of their resources.
Liberals also believe that major planning inquiries should be split into two stages. The first stage to examine the need for the proposed development, including alternatives; the second stage to proceed only after the need had been established. Inspectors and their staff should adopt a generally more investigative role, and public funds be made available to ensure that a lack of resources does not prevent proper research and presentation of essential facts and opinions by objectors. The recommendations of inspectors should be decided after democratic debate and by a vote of the relevant elected body and not by the executive decision of one Secretary of State.
Liberals recognise the special difficulties faced by many people with disabilities, especially with regards to access to public buildings and the adaption of dwellings to meet special needs. We therefore call for measures to ensure that disabled people have full and proper access to all buildings to which the public has access.
Despite the emphasis placed on public participation in planning matters, the present system has failed to create a genuinely participative democratic process of the sort Liberals wish to see. This failure is especially significant for Liberals who want to see genuine participation in many other areas of policy making and who, therefore, have a vested interest in ensuring that public participation in planning is effective.
Crucially, we want to emphasise the creative role that the public can play in planning. Rarely, at present, is the public involved in any real way at the beginning of the plan making process, such as determining the various objectives. For example, bodies such as schools, civic societies and tenants’ associations, might take on specific areas of study. Opinion polling techniques might on occasion be used to assess public attitudes. We believe in the long term importance of introducing people to planning issues as part of the general education process. Such work at school would bring together in a relevant and cohesive way skills as varied as measurement, information research, sociology, design and politics, and is therefore educational in the fullest sense.
Liberals believe that the mechanism for controlling and guiding private enterprise in serving the public interest must be strengthened. We also believe that the replacement of the rating/Council Tax system with the long-term Liberal proposal for a tax on land values would have important planning implications for future community developments.
Liberals believe that plans for large new housing developments must contain adequate sports and recreational facilities. These to be constructed concurrently, rather than years later as so often happens. We would also seek to ensure that all public or private housing developments exceeding ten dwellings contain a percentage of dwellings that are adapted for use by disabled people.
Planning plays a pivotal role in conservation and in the creation of an improved quality of life for everyone. That quality cannot be measured simply in economic “Gross National Product” terms and the present imperative of development at almost any cost has inflicted immeasurable social and environmental damage. Liberals believe that planning controls are vital in ensuring that Britain’s rural environment is protected and we condemn governemnt proposals for deregulation.
Liberals say that conservation is essential to preserve the freedom of choice for future generations, in terms both of natural material resources and the environment. The balance between the development of green fields and the rehabilitation of existing buildings and derelict sites, must be far more weighted in favour of conservation. This must be accompanied by measures to improve the existing built environment. Agricultural land, valuable wildlife habitats, and the landscape must be fully protected. Planning controls should be extended to certain aspects of agriculture and forestry, and better measures are required to alleviate the problems and damage caused by mineral extractions.