That’s three and a half hours of my life I won’t get back. I’ve written before here about the sham of British local democracy but today it got up close and personal. First some background. In the 1990s a local water company needed a new water treatment works near where we now live. Under threat of compulsory purchase, a local farmer, unwillingly, sold them land to build it on. It is surrounded by his fields, on the edge of a grouse moor half a mile from a single track adopted road and several miles from the nearest public transport.
The plant was in operation for about ten years until the water company decided it was surplus to requirements, closed it down and sold it on, without giving the farmer from whom it had been virtually expropriated the chance to buy it back. Recently, a planning application was submitted wanting to convert the water treatment works to a residence. The original owner would never have sold the land for residential development and he does not want a residential property in the middle of his land. Our local parish council objected in the hope that the unsustainability of the site would be obvious even to the most myopic local government bureaucrat.
However, they did not realise that the government’s National Planning Policy Framework had moved the goal posts. It means any redundant building, just about anywhere except a National Park, can be converted for residential use, even if the original owner had been fleeced, and even if the property was in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The result was the planning officers slavishly followed the NPPF and recommended the application be approved under delegated powers. To their credit, the ward councillors refused to allow the approval to go through on the nod, and insisted it went to the Local Authority Planning Committee. And that’s why I spent three and a half hours this afternoon, losing the will to live, attending the committee so I could object to this particular planning application.
The first agenda item offered me a smidgeon of hope. An entirely sensible application to build a house was passed despite the committee chairman, and the planning officers saying it contravened the NPPF, which is clearly as sacred to bureaucrats and councillors as if it were brought down from Mount Sinai on tablets of stone by Moses himself. All the other applications were accepted and unquestioningly followed the advice of the council officers, despite in one case, extremely worrying issues about the state of the sewers and flood risks being raised by a parish councillor and objector. Finally, it came to the application I was waiting for. I objected, the ward councillor and one other supported the objection, then the planning solicitor intervened saying that refusal to accept the application contravened the NPPF and that the committee could not go against the sacred text. With the exception of the ward councillor and one other, all the other councillors (representing all parties) caved in. If that is the relationship between local authorities and central government you really have to ask yourself what is the point of local government at all, and is it any wonder hardly anyone votes in local elections. What was worse was I got the distinct impression that the application had only been called to committee by the grown-ups, to quiet the agitated children who councillors needed to vote for them every 4 years. It was insulting and patronising.
Since I was eighteen, I’ve never missed a vote in national, local or (spit) EU elections, but after today, I think I’m going to have a lie in on local election days in future.