|Democracy in action
||[Dec. 11th, 2012|10:36 pm]
We spent this afternoon at the County Council's Planning Committee, and I have come home very discouraged. The Committee (it says here) consists of sixteen members of the Council, of whom maybe half were present, and they approved the recommendation of the planning officers in all four of the cases we heard. In every case, this was a recommendation to approve the planning application, and in every case, it was opposed by the local ward councillors, as well as by local residents.
On the one hand, you may say, that's what we pay planning officers for, to come up with the best possible answers: why should the committee try to second guess them? But in that case, don't waste my time and mess with my emotions by telling me that if objectors make a strong enough case, they can persuade the committee that the officers have got it wrong.
durham_rambler and I were particularly interested in a development just down the hill from us: I won't go into the details as it's a long and depressing story, largely concerned with the increasing conversion of this part of Durham into one great student hall of residence, but one without resident tutors or communal facilities. It isn't fair to the students, who are "living out" but without the support and structure of living in an actual settled community (as I did, in our first little house in Framwelgate Moor, long ago), and it isn't fair to the long-term residents who live with constant late night noise, rubbish in the back lanes, and the disappearance of corner shops which need a year-round community to keep them going.
Planning consent had been given for three more houses, obviously designed to be student warrens, several years ago, and was about to expire. I don't remember that application, and can't say anything about it. When a further application went in to build even bigger on the site, I didn't have any great hopes of stopping it, but as we talked to local residents we discovered a real swell of feeling against it, and day after day more objections appeared on the Council's website: from residents, individually and in the residents' association, from the council's strategic planning team, from the police who saw the concentration of students as a likely cause of antisocial behaviour. Eventually even the planning office recommended turning this one down. And the applicant must have seen this too, because they put in a second application to extend their initial consent for three years. We opposed that, too: quite apart from whether consent should ever have been given, local student numbers are already too high for a balanced community, and planning guidance no longer regards gardens as suitable for development - but the planners recommended acceptance.
We turned up at the Committee meeting with speeches carefully prepared - absolutely necessary since objectors have only five minutes to speak, not each, but to be shared between them, as best they can - with a neighbour addressing information about student numbers to the substantive application, and durham_rambler speaking on behalf of the residents' association against the extension. On arrival we discovered that the applicant was withdrawing the application for the larger houses, and wanted only to apply for the extension (my father had an expression: "he's shot my fox", which precisely expresses how I feel about this). There was a slight kerfuffle, and it was agreed that at this late state we would not be required to compress two speeches into one, and the applicant was also permitted to speak for ten minutes to balance this concession.
This was unsettling, but I don't think it made any difference. Hearing the full application would have given another opportunity to deploy the arguments against it, but I had no sense that the case was about the arguments. Usually I walk away from a debate thinking that maybe this could have been said more clearly, and maybe that could have been emphasised... Not today. Today I think our speakers had put their case together well, that the opinions ranged against the application were impressive, that one of our councillors was particularly eloquent - and it didn't matter. The one councillor on the committee who represents a ward within the city voted against the application, and all the others voted as the officers recommended.
So that's that.