Chris Criscione: Councillors should have the power to intervene earlier with planning applications

9 Dec

Cllr Chris Criscione is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Uttlesford District Council.

Why do residents get so upset when a developer leaflet drops into their area as part of a consultation; with the plans drawn up, proposals near to set in stone, and little in the way of prior input from residents as the rule rather than the exception?

Well – simply put – it comes down to the all-too-familiar exclusion of residents and their representatives from the pre-application process, secret discussions surrounding planning obligations, and the very little influence that communities have as proposals come to be consulted on as part of the formal application process.

As someone straddling industry and politics, with passion and commitment to see planning work for communities, I say this with confidence: in my experience, the most successful development proposals are those where councillors are written to in the first week that a developer or promoter takes ownership of the site. That sort of approach, at the earliest possible outset, gives the councillor the ability to relay concerns and objections, hopes, ambitions and desires to those responsible for the creation of a scheme, within the constraints of policy and an applicant’s obligations or minimum requirements.

Notwithstanding the respect that national, regional, and local planning policy needs to be afforded in the formulation of proposals, from pre-application stage through to determination, it should seem alien to us all – although it is a seemingly normal means of operating – that councillors are excluded from discussions on the basis of probity in planning, where policy and opinion actually encourages to the contrary. At this juncture, I would also contest the widely-held notion that predetermination is inevitable in councillors’ early interaction with applicants. It is not, and councillors ought to be trusted in this respect.

What I’m calling the “probity obstruction” seems a cop-out of significant magnitude, which is not backed up in policy or law. In reality it is leading to the under-delivery of new homes when planning committee’s feel obliged to refuse plans under pressure from rightly disgruntled locals, leading to poor quality and inappropriate development where they are consented because local people haven’t been represented outside of the largely ineffective neighbour consultation stages, but also leading to developer contributions being spent on projects that are not popular or desirable amongst residents.

To be very clear, decision-makers’ involvement in the planning process should not replace the need for the local authority to consider planning policy, that is obvious. But the lack of councillor involvement does create a vicious cycle of resentment between communities, local authorities, and developers which could be easily solved through greater councillor input at the outset. In this setting, they can work within policy and with developers to reach mutual satisfaction.

The idea that councillors should be involved early on is not a new one. In statute and in guidance published by the Planning Officers’ Society and the Local Government Association, it is clear that there is a desire and encouragement to do this. Why, then, does it not happen in practice?

Frankly, it’s become an industry standard that public consultation takes place late in the process and when proposals have already been largely set in stone. This is hugely disappointing for many and I’m proud in my own professional life to have bucked the trend with my colleagues at Anderson in this regard. However, if that is an industry trend overall then involving councillors early on in the evolution of proposals would make that reality more acceptable to residents: they can then say that at least one of their own has been part of the work up to that point; that their voice had been heard. Without this involvement – bar any cosmetic or token changes to “show willing” by the applicant – people see a developer-officer led process and that’s bound to cause indignation in communities across the land.

My recommendation is simple: councillors should be allowed – both in policy and in practice – to maintain relationships with developers in their area. They need the freedom to tell an applicant in no uncertain terms what residents expect. There is nothing underhand about that, I would argue as far as saying it is remiss of a councillor not to do this.

The relationships I have built over the years with councillors who see the benefits of continued engagement with developers from day one through to completion and beyond cannot be understated for their value. The stigma needs to be removed and councillors should be able to represent those who expect representation in the planning process, beyond the statutory consultation which often feeds into the aforementioned vicious cycle of resentment.

It’s on councillors, officers, and developers, to make that happen for well-planned, healthy and happy communities in the UK.

Chris Criscione: Financially reckless councils are the exception, not the rule

2 Sep

Cllr Chris Criscione is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Uttlesford District Council and a member of the Council’s Investment Board.

Recent coverage on local authority finance, shrouded in controversy over prudence and proportionality, as Council’s look to cover their costs through continued investment in commercial property, has shed light on an increasingly complex and rather gloomy state of affairs. One that preceded the public health emergency, but certainly have been worsened by its arrival. Concerns around the attitude of some local authorities in pushing the boundaries of acceptability in terms of risk and exposure are yet to overcome the very fact that this behaviour is a necessity in the absence of government funding and any reasonable alternative.

The local authority, standing on the principles of an unerring social conscience and a commitment to delivering good public services for all within its boundaries, has to meet the challenge before it. It has to accept that top-down government funding and intervention is not sustainable and, bluntly, just not right for those who continue to argue for devolution across the country. You can’t have your cake and eat it. So, what then?

For many authorities, the choice is between cutting public services, raising council-tax to eye-watering levels with adverse impacts on the taxpayer – a process that would require direct consent through referenda – or seeking alternative funding through commercial investments. The latter is certainly the most credible first step that has been taken up as the total amount of investments by local authorities exceeds £6.6bn, and on the basis that cuts and tax-rises should be a last resort. But many are asking, has the system allowed for it to take place in a responsible fashion?

On the whole, most would agree that it has. Local authorities should understand that whilst they need to provide certainty around funding as they move into a self-sustaining future, they also need to act with prudence and proportionality in all their endeavours; or it could end up costing them beyond their wildest imagination. But – and in this instance it seems to be a huge “but” that has caught the eye of government and the independent regulators that concern themselves with public finance – some have thrown the rulebook out of the window in moves that are may ruin things for the many.

The government’s review into local authority borrowing (the PWLB consultation) seems to have been motivated by the recklessness of authorities who have borrowed well in excess of their annual budgets and spending power without any consideration of expected yield, year-on-year. It would be fair to say that the scale of investment on an authority-by-authority basis is concerning in some cases. However, the return on investment (ROI) presented by the secured investments is of the greatest significance because it seems to completely ignore the need to consider the principles of opportunity-cost, value for money, exposure, and, again to put it bluntly: the entire point of the whole exercise. For Spelthorne, their billion pound investment portfolio delivered near to 1% ROI in the last year; a stark figure when you consider that they are looking to meet the shortfall caused by decreases in government funding and other key revenue streams that total well in excess of this in coming years.

It is a shame that it seems as if the most reckless authorities who lack good governance, sound independent advice, and prudence in their interactions, have at first glance ruined the opportunity for others. In Uttlesford, the District where I sit as a councillor, and as a member of the Council’s Investment Board; borrowing arrangements, the perceived strength of investments vis-à-vis the loan period and market conditions, as well as a consideration of yield, dominate our conversations at every turn. There is much to consider, but at all times councillors put the need to meet the “gap” in funding at the forefront of our minds as we consider opportunities.

How can it be that authorities seemed to have abused lax-funding arrangements and the trust of their residents to secure investment portfolios in excess of £1bn without considering the whole motivation behind the operation? If we are to continue to build a self-sustaining future for local authorities, we must put the goal and objective front and centre, not the eagerness to trail-blaze or to do something just because one is able to do so. This is a means to an ever-ambiguous end, not a profit-making exercise to put authorities in history books (seemingly for the wrong reasons).

In my humble opinion, it’s not the Government’s rules and regulations that have caused this recklessness to take root, but the complete ignorance of the local authorities who have lost all comprehension of the goal and objective of the process. One can only hope that the Government comes down hard on them for their decisions, but without ruining it for the other authorities – totalling in the hundreds – who just want to build a better Council for their residents in the circumstances.

Many authorities will be looking to meet the challenge of balancing their budgets with a sense of optimism that they can write their own destiny through their own actions and without the help of central government. It’s not a process that delivers untold levels of satisfaction, or indeed one that presents a welcome challenge given the circumstances and timescales with which we are faced; but it is an opportunity nevertheless. That is provided that the government sees the good intentions of the bulk of authorities and treats the reckless ones as the exception to the rule.