Quango pickle

Observations on housing

A couple of years ago, my wife and I moved into a small Edwardian terraced house in Westgate-on-Sea, a quiet village on the north Kent coast. Shortly afterwards, we received a letter from the local council: the owners of the property next door had applied for permission to pull it down and erect two blocks of flats in its place.

Our narrow street was part of a conservation area, and the plan to demolish an attractive period house in a large garden seemed preposterous. Moreover, building the blocks would damage the environment and create excessive demand for parking. Nor was there any real demand for such housing: developers in the area were struggling to sell homes.

Tom King, an independent councillor, marshalled local anger, and the conservation officer submitted a lengthy report opposing the development on the grounds of protecting Westgate's heritage. The planning committee rejected permission. The developer resubmitted the plans, in slightly modified forms, three times; on each occasion, they were rejected.

Then the developer appealed to the Planning Inspectorate, a £60m-a-year government quango. With undue haste, the official inspector approved the developer's plans. There was nothing we could do. Councillor King despaired: "What's the point of the local planning committee at all?"

Some people might accuse me of nimbyism, but what I object to, more than the modern block and the loss of light in my home, is the total lack of social justification for the scheme. It is purely a developer trying to make as much money as possible, with no regard for green space, heritage or local people.

All over the country, planning committees have found that their views count for nothing against the Planning Inspectorate. In Whaddon, Cheltenham, a plan to convert a local pub, the Greyhound, into flats was fiercely resisted by the local council, MP and residents. The planning inspector overruled them, despite admitting that the "Greyhound Inn is a valued and popular destination".

Even if the inspector upholds a council decision, developers can then appeal directly to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Crawley Council objected to the building of a ten-storey, 270-flat block in the town, saying that the plan was "too large". The developer appealed to the inspectorate and the council's decision was upheld. Yet, on a further appeal, it was overruled by the government.

The government should be involved in national projects, such as Heathrow's Terminal Five, but it is absurd that quango officials or cabinet members can overrule local councils on plans for housebuilding. The government might bleat that it has to build more than three million new homes in England by 2020 to meet demand, but if it were really worried, it would fill some of the million homes that lie empty across the country.

The destruction of local democracy in this area is likely to get worse. Labour's new legislation will make life easier for developers. And there is to be yet another quango, the Infrastructure Planning Commission, to oversee major developments. We can guess which side this new outfit will be on. The wrecking ball is swinging as violently against local accountability as it will soon be swinging into the walls of the house next door.

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the new progressives