Cardiff Civic Society respond to Cardiff Council’s misleading post on planning
On 27 May, Cardiff Council posted a long Twitter post in defence of the Planning Committee.
It is good to see Council engaging with citizens on planning. Some may even have been convinced by the argument that the Planning Committee should not be blamed for unpopular decisions but should be credited for anything good delivered through the planning process. Let’s have our cake and eat it.
Those who have had the misfortune of dealing with the planning system will be more sceptical. To use the Facebook post’s favourite word, it’s complicated.
The post claims that the Planning Committee operates outside Council politics (even though the ruling group chooses its Chair). It is “a bit like a court” and must grant even unpopular applications if all legal requirements are met. Otherwise it risks a potentially expensive challenge from the developer.
This is not how real courts see it. In a 2008 Court of Appeal ruling, Lord Justice Pill stated that elected councillors should not have closed minds but are entitled to views on planning issues. Agreeing, Lord Justice Rix observed that a planning decision maker does not act in a quasi-judicial capacity ‘‘but in a situation of democratic accountability’’.
That does not relieve the Planning Committee of its obligation to consider all the evidence fairly and objectively. Arbitrary, inconsistent or biased decisions would rightly open the Planning Committee to challenge. But assessing any contentious development, such as building homes on a green space, requires political judgement when declared objectives clash, as they inevitably do for large projects.
Fairness and willingness to listen to arguments need not imply impartiality. Members of the Planning Committee who have been elected as Councillors on a promise to build homes or to protect green spaces can be expected to weigh such objectives highly in making decisions. And so they should. That is what democratic accountability means. Otherwise, what is the point of election pledges?
Planning judgement must be exercised within the legal and policy framework. But Council is itself in part responsible for that framework, in particular through adopting its Local Development Plan and the Supplementary Planning Guidance that supports it. The LDP helps define what developers can do and failure to conform to it offers legitimate grounds to reject a planning application.
As an example, tall buildings are often controversial. The Planning Committee must consider these within the policy context. But it is a Council SPG that says tall buildings outside the city centre are unlikely to be supported while those within in it may be favoured. Cabinet cannot wash its hands of decisions permitted by policies which it has itself agreed.
Nor is Council entirely free of liability for the wider legal context, much of which is now devolved to Welsh Government. As the largest Local Authority in Wales, Cardiff Council could influence changes in areas such as planning or environment. It cannot hide behind laws it implicitly approves.
The Council post presents a view of the world in which developers initiate proposals, which the Planning Committee then assesses, with the Council Leader and Cabinet having no responsibility for the outcome. Many private applications do follow this pattern, but Leader and Cabinet are deeply implicated in many of the largest or most controversial developments.
Planning Committee has approved a Museum of Military Medicine, but it requires Council to sell or lease land it owns in Britannia Park. The Paddle Steamer café is to be demolished to make way for Council flats. Council has provided The Embankment developer with much of the land it needs. Unless Council invests in the Indoor Arena, there will be no planning applications to consider.
These examples come from just one ward. There are many more across the city. It is absurd for the Council Leader to deny responsibility for planning applications that originate from Cabinet decisions.
Developing a growing city is not easy. Uncomfortable decisions will sometimes have to be taken. But Leader and Cabinet should be open with the city’s residents – who are also its voters – about their accountability for those choices. Planning may be complicated, but honesty will make it simpler.