Gauging views on new housing schemes

Here at MPC, we know from our YouGov survey of 20,000 adults from across the UK that the majority of people support new homes being built in their local area. Despite being outnumbered by a ratio of 5:3, those in opposition to development are three time more likely to actively oppose than supporters are to actively show their support.

We also know that the Government wants to hear from supporters. With the problem of ever increasing house prices and an ambitious but so far elusive target of delivering 250,000 new homes per year, one of the Governments solutions has been the ‘localism’ agenda. Giving more the decision making power to local people was supposed to reduce bureaucracy and make the planning system more effective. The Autumn 2015 statement further bolstered this by announcing £1 billion of funding to unlock ‘locally supported’ housing schemes.

Gauging views on new housing schemes is, however, firmly the job of local authorities. So how fit are Council’s consultation procedures to gather this support? In my experience, not only are their processes not fit for this purpose but, in some cases, they also actively disenfranchise supporters.

For example, a planning portal for a Local Authority in Surrey asks local residents to ‘object or comment on a planning application’. For a local resident searching for way to support a planning application, this title could easily cause confusion and mislead the resident into assuming that only objections need to be logged, reinforcing an already held common misconception that I hear when engaging with supporters.

In an Essex Local Authority, the portal asks residents to tick either ‘oppose’ or ‘support’, each selection prompting a drop down list of reasons for this stance. If objecting, the list is exhaustive; traffic, infrastructure, neighbour amenity and it goes on. If supporting, just one reason is listed; good design. What about, just to name a few, affordable housing, job creation, investment in the local economy?  Whether objecting or supporting, the same level of assistance devising material planning considerations for this view should be offered to everyone who writes in.

In countless local authorities, a supporter can only register to speak at a planning committee if an opponent does also.

The most frustrating requirement of many planning portals however is the need to include both your name and address on your letter/email and for this to be published online. Debates that surround planning applications can be vociferous; dominated by a vocal minority who often claim they speak for everyone locally. In this context, it can be really off putting or even scary for supporters to publish their views online. Is it really necessary? We do not, after all, ask people to publish online who they voted for in the last election. Arguably, who represents you at Westminster can have much less direct impact on your life than the plans for new homes in your back yard.  

If the intention of the ‘localism’ agenda is to give people a larger role in local decision making, then Councils need to make sure that the statutory consultation processes they have in place seek to give an equal voice to all – not just the vocal minority.

This article was written by Director Nikki Davies