COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny

The Auction Market site in Ripon - a local challenge for planners.
The Auction Market site in Ripon - a local challenge for planners.

This week David explores a new television programme about council planners and argues ordinary members of the public must remain vigilant to ensure officials and elected members reach the correct decisions.

The BBC, of course, has a mission statement: “To enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain.”

It’s not entirely clear which of this trio of aspirations the new BBC 2 series The Planners is intended to match. There is certainly information – information about how planners go about their work, how local councils make decisions, and about the aspirations of people who apply for planning permission.

And for some viewers, it may be an education – does it really all come down to the opinions of a few elected councillors whose grasp of planning law may be hazy and some of whom can be swayed by emotion? Or, they may think, why do planners not see that the recommendations and decisions they make can blight people’s lives? Then again, they may ask, “what on earth were these people thinking in applying for this mad scheme in the first place?”.

There is certainly entertainment – we are presented with villains (who they are depends on your point of view) and with heroes, and of course, with that favourite of dramatic writers, the cliff-hanger – will permission for this wonderful scheme/this stupid try-on be granted? Will the council reject the ruling, or will the professional judgment of the officers win the day? Will it be tears or champagne for the applicants?

The first programme looked at four scenarios, all of which will be familiar to planners, applicants and councillors around the country – including in Ripon.

The first, particularly apposite to our city at present as officers and councillors assess the latest application for the former auction mart site, was an application to build a new estate of almost 600 houses (sorry, homes) in Winsford, Cheshire. Unlike the Ripon application, this was on a greenfield site, overlooked by a long-established estate whose residents valued their rural view. They fought a vigorous local campaign to fight the developers.

In an ideal world, the protestors would have won; but the world not being ideal, they were up against pressures imposed on local councils by central Government to build large numbers of new houses in their area.

The Winsford application filled all the criteria set out by Government at all levels, and the application was passed.

The second case was of an elderly lady living in a semi, whose neighbours wanted to extend their house at the back. She claimed that it would severely affect the light levels in the room in which she spent most of her time. Officers from the local council visited and did assessments. Their conclusion was that although light levels would be affected, this was well within guidelines and recommended approval.

Although generally such decisions are made by officers who have powers delegated to them, in this case they asked the council’s planning committee – though this may, of course, have been because there were television cameras pointing at them.

The committee members visited the house to see for themselves. When it came to a vote, all but one member voted to approve the extension.

This is especially relevant at the moment, as the Government is proposing to increase the “permitted development” size – the size of a single-storey rear extension you can build without getting planning permission – to eight metres for detached houses, and six metres for any other type of house. That would allow your neighbour to extend his property at the back by this amount without formal permission. As proposed, neither listed buildings nor buildings in conservation areas would be exempt from the new regime.

The other two cases involved listed buildings. One was an application from an owner in a large Georgian house near the centre of Cheltenham to remove railings and a wall (all listed as part of the building’s status) and create a dropped kerb so that a parking space could be made at the front of the house rather than parking, less conveniently, at the rear.

The applicant argued that other houses in the area had parking at the front. But officers – both the planning officer and the conservation officer – recommended refusal, as the scheme would destroy the integrity of the building.

After a site inspection the planning committee refused permission. It would have been interesting to hear the view of Cheltenham Civic Society on this application – but if the BBC asked, the answer did not appear in the film. Judging by the evidence produced here, the correct decision seems to have been made. That was not the case in Chester, where an elderly couple decided their south-facing outbuilding was ideal for solar panels.

They admitted they didn’t need them to save money, but thought that they would be doing their bit for “the environment”. Unfortunately the outbuilding was immediately below Chester’s city walls, and putting solar panels on a decent slate roof would create an ugly intrusion – as the conservation officer pointed out.

When the planning committee visited it was told that there are photovoltaic cells that look like tiles that would do the same job, albeit more expensively; but the committee, possibly swayed by a sympathetic view of the couple, permitted the development.

The film showed the panels in place – proving that the decision was at the very least questionable, as the conservation officer – though professionally discrete about the decision of his political masters – implied.

New estates, extensions, parking and solar panels – all matters on which those who take planning decisions for Ripon, like those of any other settlement, are frequently making.

They take their decisions confined by planning law, by Government directive and by local plans, as well as by the prospect of a costly appeal.

That’s why we all need to be vigilant and make sure that those decisions are the right ones.