#35. The public? What have they got to do with anything? Well, actually, quite a lot.

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Quite a heavy presence of parishioners at the last Highley Parish Council meeting (Tuesday, 10th January) and the 15 minutes allocated on the agenda as ‘parishioner’s time’ over-ran by several minutes. The issue that had brought them to the meeting was the planning application for a 15 metre mobile phone mast, to be jointly operated by Vodafone and Telefonica (commonly known as O2), to be located on the existing BT telephone exchange on the eastern edge of the ridge on which the village is located. There is already a 13 metre mast on site.

(An agreement between Telefonica and Vodafone means they share network facilities whilst still operating as two independent companies.)

Exacerbating an already contentious situation arising out of the proximity of the mast to a residential area, is the presence on the site of a substantial mature oak tree. To add insult to the perceived injury of the mast itself, the planning notices required by law to be publicly displayed on the boundary of any development site were, not to put too fine a point on it, not at all public, to the extent that no one actually noticed them until the day before the deadline for public comments on the 2nd January, by which time they had been there since the last week in November.

Inevitably it all kicked off on the ‘Highley Community’ Facebook page, with the Parish Council (of which I’m a member) taking a lot of flak. Having received a telephone call from householders neighbouring the mast site, I duly met with them and explained the background to the Parish Council recording a “No objection” decision when the application came in in November. I subsequently posted the following on the Highley Community Facebook page, including background info on the NPPF because it had a direct bearing on the Parish Council’s actions…

OK, situation as at present…

As I’ve explained earlier, the whole planning system changed with the introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) three years ago. Over a thousand pages were reduced to around 50. I described the introduction of the NPPF as a “developer’s charter” and that’s what it’s proven to be.

At the centre of the NPPF was the insistence that any consideration of a planning application should be based on a “presumption in favour of sustainable development”. That became known simply as “the presumption”. What that meant, in effect, was that the onus of proof was no longer on a developer to prove that their development was sustainable, it was now up to objectors to PROVE that it wasn’t – to prove that the disadvantages of a proposed development SIGNIFICANTLY outweighed any claimed advantages.

One of the reasons I fought the NPPF so hard was because the government were also pushing ‘Localism’ at the same time and the two were mutually exclusive – but that’s a story for another time.

When the application for the phone mast came to the Highley PC planning sub-committee there were no grounds for objections except those based on perceived disadvantages, and as those had to be set against arguable advantages to the wider community we were on a loser from the off.

So, “wider community”? Whilst half of Shropshire is arguing for basic cellphone and internet access, let alone ‘improved’ cellphone and internet coverage, any objection to a mast going up that will improve coverage was doomed to fail from the outset because any such objection would be over-ruled by Shropshire Council.

Now, back in the latter part of 2016 the presence of a significant oak tree within the grounds of the telephone exchange was brought to the attention of Shropshire Council Arboriculture Department and a Provisional Tree Preservation Order (TPO) was placed on the oak.

On its own a TPO doesn’t have the power to stop a development, but it does mean that work in close proximity to a TPO’d tree has to be done to a specific schedule of work within tight limits. If those ‘tight limits’ mean more expense for the developer then the project can become financially unviable, rendering the project not worth continuing with. My personal opinion is that that is unlikely to happen, given the distance of the base of the mast from the trunk of the oak.

The other consideration, of course, is that we are talking about a developer who happens to be a mega-rich mobile phone company for whom the word “viable” doesn’t mean much.

As for the way the notices were displayed?

Well, I have explained to Shropshire Council planning department as well as the Arboriculture Department that, whilst the notice for the mast is within sight of anyone passing (sort of, because it’s just jammed between the fence pales at knee height), the notice for the TPO is actually hanging on the right hand gate and therefore not easily seen when the gate is open – which it is for most of the time.

When I was talking to the Tree Officer this afternoon I probably sounded uncertain when talking about the notice for the TPO because, whilst I knew it should be there – having seen it referred to in an earlier email – I simply couldn’t recall seeing it on display when passing earlier in the day.

I explained that none of that situation helps the public perception of planning applications being “snuck in under the fence”. A public notice has to be clearly displayed in order for it to mean what it says on the tin – public.

My impression of the wider concerns is that most of the general unease about the application for the mast centres on the planning notice not being noticed by anyone until the day before the deadline for public comments.

Now that it is more widely known that there is actually another notice on the gate opposite the public notice for the mast application, one that is still open for public comments on the TPO until the 13th January, I have asked whether the deadline for public comments on the mast application be extended to that same date as the deadline for comments relating to the TPO as a gesture of goodwill.

I’m not holding my breath, but stranger things have happened.

In the event that the extension is granted get your ‘evidence’ in support of your argument ready.

Meanwhile, read this if “emissions” concern you…

http://www.zyra.org.uk/phonmast.htm

I did get a very rapid response from the planning department which said that, in line with general procedure, until an application had actually been considered by either a planning committee or officer under delegated powers, the system was still open for the submission of comments, whether of support or objection. Needless to say, the floodgates opened.

The whole matter underlines the problem with the way the planning system is administered – it places the public and their concerns on the periphery of the system, making them secondary to the process itself. The requirement that a public notice needs only to be nominally “public”, with no requirement to make it public in the sense of it being obvious. In this instance the way the notice was displayed merely added insult to injury.

In a submission objecting to a local housing development that was being pushed through a massive loop-hole created by the stringent requirements of the need for a 5-year housing-land supply [see ** below], I said that everything about the current system of “local consultation” undermines public confidence in what the government calls a “plan-led planning system”. It is patently anything but “plan-led”!

As the Local Member at county level who is also a Parish Councillor and a member of our Parish Council’s planning sub-committee, I have a duty to ensure that statutory planning guidance is applied despite my own misgivings over the NPPF. Emotion cannot come into the determination of a planning application; decisions must be informed by that presumption at the core of the NPPF.

It’s difficult to explain to someone who has not been in contact with the NPPF first- hand just how profound a difference it has made to how the planning system works. Replacing over a thousand pages of planning ‘law’ and (detailed) guidance with fifty pages of “planning principles” has over-simplified the system to the point of rendering it complex and arguable.

The old planning policy guidance (PPG) was complicated, but because it had evolved in the way that English Law had evolved it was complicated only in the sense that there was so much of it, a vast archive of case law reciting past examples of how earlier cases were resolved to everyone’s satisfaction; a resource for the settlement of arguments before everything fell apart. Now? Well if something is “arguable” you’ll get an argument heavy with subjective assessment, not a reasoned, objective discussion of points of law, and that’s not good.

Imagine replacing the vast resource that is English Law with a few pages of “framework” and then trying to sleep at night. The predicted nightmare is now a reality.

This is an interesting story that highlights the impact of the “presumption in favour”…

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-38573784?utm_source=LGiU+Subscribers&utm_campaign=bae170426b-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_01_11&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_4e47157211-bae170426b-198976261

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** Failure to achieve that supply of land opens the way for the NPPF and its “presumption”.

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And an interesting article in yesterday’s The Times which touches on the increasing distance between what the government claim is ‘localism’ and the reality in planning terms…

Green belt at mercy of developers, say councils

Most councillors felt that the planning system favoured developers over maintaining nature. David Bebber for The Times

Most councillors in green-belt areas believe that the land will be given over to housing in the next five years.

A survey for the National Trust found that 58 per cent of councillors agreed the land would be lost, compared with 51 per cent of those asked the same question in 2013.

The responses to the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) survey came just before the government publishes its housing white paper. Nearly three quarters of local councillors believe that the planning system favours developers while just over half said that housing was being approved even if they were not in line with local plans, because of relaxed regulations.

The LGiU warned that many councillors felt that the democratic tool of having to approve applications at a council level was being undermined and power was being skewed towards developers and the government. It voiced concerns that the National Planning Policy Framework, introduced in 2012, was failing to put communities first.

Almost half of respondents had seen an increase in the number of planning decisions being challenged and overturned since the framework was adopted. Of those respondents, half said that it made councils more likely to approve schemes.

Less than a fifth believed that the framework had improved design quality and half of the 1,278 councillors surveyed thought that their planning departments were not adequately resourced.

Jonathan Carr-West, LGiU chief executive, said: “The planning system is one of the fundamental pillars of local democracy, allowing communities to help shape the physical structure of the places they live. Councillors are the most important link between communities and the system. Our survey with the National Trust shows that many councillors feel that this democratic tool is at risk of being undermined.”

Ingrid Samuel, historic environment director at the trust, said: “It is almost five years after the government’s planning framework was adopted, so it’s worrying that councillors feel it hasn’t delivered the localism promised.”

Sajid Javid, the communities secretary, is due to launch the white paper this month. There is tension within the Conservative Party between the need to build more houses and fears over a “backlash” from middle England.

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