Commenting on planning applications

Summary

With so much money to be made from property in and around Cambridge, over-stretched and under-resourced planning officers and councillors find themselves on the receiving end of a planning system imposed by Central Government that ties their hands and enables developments that are either of poor quality, poor design, irritate local residents, destabilise communities or a combination of all. 

[If you’ve not read it, How developers game the planning system – a Cambridge case study]

“Hideous Cambridge – a city mutilated” was how the book by David Jones and Ellis Hall described what has been going on in Cambridge of late. (You can buy the book here). Old tweets from the book’s account are at https://twitter.com/hideouscbg and still make for interesting reading.

We see it time and again in Cambridge where the planning system railroads planning committees into approving planning applications which are not nearly as good as they could be. I’ve lost count the number of times developers and their agents have referred to schemes they are representing as ‘acceptable’. I’ve also lost count of the number of times councillors on planning committees have torn applications to bits, only to approve them at the vote because they know developers will appeal to Conservative ministers (who tabled the legislation) and planning inspectors acting under their authority, who will overturn refusals and award costs against local councils. In an age of austerity (where councils are also barred from raising revenue to compensate for central government cuts), it’s no wonder councils approve such poor and speculative schemes that store up problems later on.

Most recently I was filming at Cambridge City Council’s planning committee on an unpopular scheme that had over 100 objections to it

Despite the pleas from Dr Andy Clarke & Cllr Dr Dave Baigent, the scheme was still approved.

I’ll look at the history of the site in a different blogpost, suffice to say that the Romsey Labour Club was built with voluntary labour, had a foundation stone laid by a former Labour Prime Minister, and was opened by a then future Labour Chancellor.

“Do people know where to look for planning applications?”

It’s one of many things that doesn’t get nearly enough publicity as it should. But we’re in an age of clickbait where Z-list celebs being photographed forgetting to put on clothes, or that video of cute baby animals at the zoo are required viewing. And I can’t complain about baby cat photos given that I did a photoshoot of a litter of them recently.

Cambridge kittens

Cambridge kittens

“Look into my eyes – my eyes – not around my eyes – look into my eyes!”

Floofballs with claws.

Basically the place to search for planning applications is https://idox.cambridge.gov.uk/online-applications/

In order to comment, you need to register. In part at the planning hearings, there has to be a public record of who objected to what. Lest some secretive group try to undermine local democracy. Personally I’d like to see the Land Registry data made public and searchable so the public can find out who owns what as a means for reducing corruption. (The Tories tried to privatise it recently, but such was the backlash they backed down).

The opening page of the portal looks like this:

Planning Portal 1

The keyword search is a bit temperamental – especially with road names as there are some which require further refining. Normally the postcode search is your best bet if you cannot find the reference number for the case concerned.

For an open case – ie one the public can comment on, let’s take this example of a change of use that’s been doing the rounds on Twitter today.

Planning Portal 2

Locals have issues with this because Cambridge has a huge affordable and social housing shortage – not helped by developers wiggling out of requirements to build such housing. So when these student flats were first proposed, it caused a bit of a storm. As Keith Edkins noted below, the planning permission granted came with conditions.

Keith Edkins Planning Condition

Furthermore…

It will be interesting to see if Cambridge’s planning officers hold firm on the issue of lack of parking, or whether they will relent. Ditto for Cambridge’s planning committee.

“Which are the important documents to look at?”

Planning Portal 3

If you click on the documents tab (as above) you’ll get a list of things such as the above. The most important ones to look at from a general public’s point of view are the drawings. These are the ones highlighted in yellow and labeled ‘drawings’. Click on the ‘paper and magnifying glass’ symbols on the right and you can see the drawings as PDF documents.

“What if I want to make a comment?”

You can do so by clicking on the comments tab.

Planning Portal 4

…but you must register with the site in order to have your comments accepted. Alternatively, you can write to your Cambridge City Councillors (see https://www.writetothem.com/ and type in your post code) to let them know your views – do include the planning case reference number). If enough of you write to your local councillors, they may be persuaded to attend and speak on the planning application concerned. Below is one example where a big developer had their case thrown out following interventions from local residents who had recently moved in and spent a lot of money on their new homes, when they found out said developer was trying to get out of a planning condition on noise and pollution.

The above case made the local news – see https://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/news/cambridge-news/cb1-cambridge-station-traffic-noise-14380499 by Tara Cox of the Cambridge News. (She was sitting with me on the press desk at this hearing).

“What do other people write as comments?”

Here are two examples of objections with the Royal Standard case.

Planning Portal 5

When objecting to a planning application, it’s best to be specific as to why – and to stay within what the law allows. Otherwise the planning committee will throw your objection out. To quote from Martin Goodall’s blogpost, reasons for refusal include:

  • “Adverse effect on the residential amenity of neighbours, by reason of (among other factors) noise*, disturbance*, overlooking, loss of privacy, overshadowing, etc. [*but note that this does not include noise or disturbance arising from the actual execution of the works, which will not be taken into account, except possibly in relation to conditions that may be imposed on the planning permission, dealing with hours and methods of working, etc. during the development] 
  • Unacceptably high density / over-development of the site, especially if it involves loss of garden land or the open aspect of the neighbourhood (so-called ‘garden grabbing’) 
  • Visual impact of the development
  • Effect of the development on the character of the neighbourhood
  • Design (including bulk and massing, detailing and materials, if these form part of the application) 
  • The proposed development is over-bearing, out-of-scale or out of character in terms of its appearance compared with existing development in the vicinity
  • The loss of existing views from neighbouring properties would adversely affect the residential amenity of neighbouring owners
  • [If in a Conservation Area, adverse effect of the development on the character and appearance of the Conservation Area]
  • [If near a Listed Building, adverse effect of the development on the setting of the Listed Building.] 
  • The development would adversely affect highway safety or the convenience of road users [but only if there is technical evidence to back up such a claim].”  

The above from Martin Goodall here.

Going by this blogpost from Ellisons Solicitors, it looks like the relevant issues to raise in objections in the case of the Royal Standard application in the screenshots, are the ones that relate to parking and traffic – ‘material conditions’ in planning language they state.

“You’re just a tree-hugging NIMBY who hates development!”

I boomeranged back into my childhood home because housing is so unaffordable – I’d love to have my own place but cannot afford it. Therefore a stop on house-building is the last thing that I need if I want my situation to change.

My issue is that the entire building, planning and development control system is working against, not with communities. Personally I think the quality of developments that are being and have been built in Cambridge have been substandard, and the people who are the first to lose out are those that buy those properties with a view to making their home here. Cambridge is their city too.

One thing I find interesting when speaking to people in the planning and building industry – the ones who have an interest in keeping Cambridge a nice place to live and work, are their off the record criticisms of developments that have been unpopular locally. It’s one thing for criticism to come from an affluent middle-aged property owner, but quite another to come from a planning or property professional who can list the faults with some of the more controversial and higher profile developments.

“What do the new residents say?”

This is one of the surveys I’d love to see commissioned and made annual – a survey of the people who have moved into new build homes in and around Cambridge for the medium to long term. What bas been their experience? What teething issues have they had? Which are the features in their neighbourhood that work really well? Which ones do not?

I get the sense that as a city we’re not good at collecting and sharing the evidence and experiences of this rapid development. It’s just ‘build-build-build’ and for investors and markets far away from Cambridge, with little benefit for the city as a whole.

Planning Portal 6

But with the property market being as it is, it’s not surprising that estate agents are more than happy to sell properties abroad at the expense of local residents in the face of a huge waiting list for social housing amongst other things. There’s nothing councils or councillors can do about this. The buck stops with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on international property sales. With Brexit taking up so much of Whitehall’s policy capacity, I’m not expecting any changes soon. Not under the existing government.

Young adults too are struggling to find somewhere affordable to live where they are not spending huge chunks of their earnings on rent. And as Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian states here, couples are putting off having children because of the precarious nature of employment and housing.  Or in my case, I’ve abandoned any ideas about settling down, buying a house and having children. I refuse to run in the rat race.

 

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