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Letter: Time to Review and Prioritise Our Plans

Published on: 12 Nov, 2021
Updated on: 12 Nov, 2021

From: David Roberts

In response to: Planning in Wonderland

The evidence highlighted by Harry Eve of pro-developer bias in Guildford’s planning system is overwhelming, and I’m sorry his important letter vanished from The Dragon’s front page so quickly. Fortunately, now is an excellent time to tackle the institutional corruption he describes.

In the first place, the bizarre defection to the Tory opposition of Cllr Jan Harwood offers an opportunity to re-balance policy. As Guildford council’s former deputy leader and lead councillor for planning, he made no secret of his support for the hated Tory Local Plan or his contempt for the villages already being bulldozed. Now, the Lib Dem-R4GV coalition are free to commit to a meaningful Plan review which he opposed.

Unfortunately, neither the public nor other councillors have been consulted about the review’s aims and terms of reference. The appointment of a truly independent expert – not one of the usual planning mafia, I hope – to oversee the whole review process is already two years overdue. So it’s high time council leaders Bigmore and McShane show some leadership by telling us exactly what outcomes they want to see.

Secondly, council officers will soon be working for a new chief executive. This is a chance to change the toxic culture of the planning department. Corrupted by decades of one-party Tory rule, Guildford planners have become pawns of the development lobby, measuring career success in terms of planning applications approved instead of championing the public interest. This has been a systemic problem for years. I would respectfully urge Mr Horwood to view November 3rd’s Planning Committee webcast, as Mr Eve suggests, and frame his own view as to the fairness of the process.

Much of the problem can be solved by simple administrative adjustments. For instance, I have yards of emails from officers, including some surreal legal advice, claiming that photographs of persistent flooding on a local site allocated for housing are inadmissible as planning evidence without councillors taking major new policy decisions. This is nonsense, which a capable administrator could easily finesse by changing bureaucratic practice to bring Guildford into line with other councils and natural justice.

Similarly, I’m told that a moratorium on major planning application approvals would be counter-productive, whatever the defects of the Local Plan, since this would invite challenges on non-determination grounds that would automatically favour developers. This too is nonsense, since non-determination can apply only once an application is validated.

With its current finances in dire straits, it is wrong for Guildford council to waste taxpayers’ money on extra staff to deal with the current backlog of applications. Politics is about priorities, and it does not require a declared policy shift to adjust services to fit the resources available. In this case, the complex and resource-intensive validation of major housing schemes applications should simply be de-prioritised in favour of private applicants who are having to wait months or years for decisions on minor home improvements.

If the big housebuilders challenge this, let them. Avoiding legal fees is a false economy where the alternative is additional staffing costs and rushed planning decisions. The Local Plan is so full of holes that the case for the biggest developments is dubious anyway; local housing needs can be met without them or the current 20 per cent buffer.

No one needs to stick their necks out politically on any of this; it’s just a matter of prudent administration. The growth-obsessed building mania of successive councillors responsible for planning – Juneja, Spooner, Furniss, Harwood – is no longer right for a borough in the grip of infrastructure stress, over-development and climate crisis. Humane, environmentally sensitive caution is.

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test One Response to Letter: Time to Review and Prioritise Our Plans

  1. Jules Cranwell Reply

    November 12, 2021 at 2:58 pm

    I could not agree more. It is high time the GBC leadership told us what, if anything, they are planning by way of a Local Plan review.

    Or have they chucked into the “too difficult” pile?

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