How do we make the planning system for new buildings more accessible to the public?


On the National Planning Policy Framework announcement on 05 March 2018

There are a series of consultations going on (see here) following the speeches by the Prime Minister (see here) and the Secretary of State for what is now the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government – formerly the Department for Communities and Local Government. (See here).

Four years ago, I wrote the following:

“It’s like I have more questions than answers:

  • Who owns which bits of land?
  • What are the land values of the various bits of land?
  • What are the current uses for the various bits of land?
  • What are the current demands for the various bits of land?
  • What are the current protections for the various bits of land?
  • Which bits of land need more protection?
  • Which bits of land are suitable for development?
  • What is the spread of housing demand across the country?
  • Who needs what types of housing in which parts of the country?
  • What are the financial gaps between the types of housing people need and the types of housing they can afford, and how does this vary across the country?
  • Who doesn’t have decent access to housing?
  • Who has too much housing and is under-using it?
  • What are the policies that can tackle under-use of housing and relieve excess pressure?
  • How would those with the housing assets try to ‘game’ the system to ensure they kept all of their properties at the expense of everyone else?
  • How does transport fit into all of this?
  • How does resilience to/adaptation to climate change fit into all of this?
  • What are the costs associated with improving the above-two points?
  • What are the likely future trends with housing demand and supply?
  • Which components cost what when building a house?
  • Which specialist labour types cost what?
  • Who do we need to be training in and in what levels in the future?
  • Where is the investment going to come from?
  • What are the international factors that impact the housing market?
  • Is what people need and what people want the same thing? (How do you manage expectations?)

The above are just a handful of questions. See what I mean by housing policy being complicated?” 

The full text of the blogpost is here.

Filming planning committee meetings in Cambridge

The lovely people at the Cambridge Forum for the Construction Industry gave me a grant to upgrade my kit to deal with v poor acoustics in committee rooms 1 & 2 of the Guildhall. The agendas are often huge, the meetings very intense and are also very long. Take the meeting for 08 March 2018. The reports pack alone is 326 pages long with another 48 or so pages of drawings.

Yet the decisions taken at those meetings affect our city for generations. Thus it is in the public interest for people to know who is saying what, and why developments get approved.

The above highlights are from a joint planning committee for a hotel at North Cambridge Railway Station – 15 Nov 2017 at Cambridge Guildhall.

“How do you even begin to scrutinise a planning application?”


Yet without proper scrutiny, and by having a planning system loaded in favour of large developers backed by big finance in the hands of distant, disinterested institutions who care for nothing except financial returns, all too often you end up with the sort of architecture that people write books about – such as Hideous Cambridge – a city mutilated. Cambridge Railway Station area is one area that comes in for huge criticism (see here). I wrote this blogpost in late 2016 on how developers gamed the planning system in their favour.

We have a number of voluntary organisations that try to scrutinise planning on behalf of the rest of us – such as the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, but it is a huge commitment for activists and volunteers to take time off work to attend planning hearings in the daytime to make the case in person. And in a city like Cambridge where housing costs are so stupidly high that you’re either spending half your income on rent, or like me you’ve moved back in with your parents, who has the time and the resources to be that civic presence in the face of multinational finance? And even then, what chance do they have?

“No – really. Where do you begin?”

Cambridge’s planning portal is at

South Cambridgeshire’s planning portal is at

The national planning portal through which you can find your local council if it’s not one of the above, is at – the great thing about the portals is that you can track planning applications.

For those of you who cycle everywhere, do keep an eye out on the application.

“What should I do if I find a planning application I do not like the look of?”

You can object in person via the planning portal – which will require registration, or you can contact your local (district/borough/city) councillor to ask them to make the case on your behalf. (See This can be particularly useful as elected councillors get extended speaking time at planning committee meetings when speaking about applications in their constituencies.

Cllr Dr Dave Baigent (Lab – Romsey) speaking about a planning application following representations to him from local residents.

Note this guide from the planninglawblog. This is because there very specific reasons considered valid in planning law as grounds for a refusing planning permission. “I don’t like the look of that building” is not considered a valid reason for a planning committee to refuse a planning application

“What are these valid reasons?”

See below from

“Negative effects on amenity (neighbours and community) – particularly due to: 

  • Noise
  • Disturbance
  • Overlooking & loss of privacy
  • Nuisance 
  • Shading / loss of daylight

Over-development or overcrowding of the site – particularly where the proposal is out of character in the area. 

Negative / adverse visual impact of the development – particularly on the landscape and or locality

Detrimental effect of proposed development on the character of the local area

Design issues – including:

  • Bulk / massing
  • Detailing and materials
  • Local design guidance / policy ignored
  • Over-bearing / out-of-scale or out of character in terms of appearance 

In Conservation Areas – adverse effect of the development on the character and appearance of the Conservation Area or heritage assets within it.

Effect of the development on the setting of a Listed Building 

Highway safety – only if supported with detailed and technical evidence.”

Note in the full article your objections will be ignored if you don’t provide evidence to justify your reasons. And much as some applicants might be ‘controversial’ ones – such as the owner of a chain of toxic waste dumps, that in itself is not a reason for objecting to a planning application. Given the state of London-based newspapers and their headlines, negative impact on your house price is also not a valid reason to refuse a planning application.

“But scrutinising all of this is ever so exhausting!”

Exactly. Hence why I get annoyed with ministers who speak about how wonderful neighbourhood planning is while not providing local communities with anywhere near the resources & civic infrastructure needed for local communities – in particular urban ones (who don’t have the local government infrastructure that parish and town councils in rural areas have) to prepare one. The level of intellect needed, and the time and effort needed to prepare a neighbourhood plan is immense.

I’m also sceptical about the minister’s comments about good design

This is because I’ve seen so little evidence of it in and around Cambridge. Ditto build quality. I was horrified to hear from newly arrived local residents a few weeks ago that the newly built flats were suffering from things like leaking pipes and broken lifts. Really basic things that you’d not expect from a new and expensive home. My question for Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire councils is whether they are doing any evaluation or surveys of issues that the first residents of these new-build homes are facing.

How can we train up more local residents and activists to take a more active part in scrutinising planning applications?

Any ideas anyone?


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