A scandal has broken out over a controversial decision by the English planning minister. As has been widely reported in the UK, the Minister, Robert Jenrick, overturned the recommendations of the independent Planning Inspector and awarded a consent for a £1billion 1,500-apartment, 44-storey development in London. In addition, the decision was issued a day before changes in a form of development tax, called Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), would have required the developer to pay £45million to the local authority, Tower Hamlets towards public costs generated by the project. Tower Hamlets is an inner city authority with high levels of poverty and deprivation. The developer, Richard Desmond, had sat next to the Minister at a fundraising event for the Conservative Party a few weeks earlier. At that dinner, Desmond showed the Minister a promotional video for the development on his phone, seemingly for three or four minutes.
In the period that followed there was further contact, at least by text messages. Desmond lobbied Jenrick on his wish to avoid having to pay the CIL to the Labour-run council, saying: “We don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe [sic] for nothing!” Two weeks after Jenrick's urgent decision to allow the development to go ahead, Desmond made a donation of £12,000 to the Conservative Party. Traditionally Ministers have been expected to rule dispassionately on planning applications, and usually, though not always, follow recommendations from the Planning Inspectorate.
How to participate
When questions were raised about whether Jenrick had been influenced at all by his communications with Desmond, another Minister was sent to reassure the nation through an interview on BBC radio. Nadhim Zahawi told listeners that Jenrick had done nothing wrong and simply wanted to get housing built as quickly as possible "for people who really need it." The £45million would have impacted on the "viability"of the scheme, he explained, and so Jenrick had to act quickly.
Nadhim Zahawi advised others to engage with the planning system in a similar way to Desmond. By attending Conservative Party fundraising events, "they’ll be sitting next to MPs and other people in their local area, and can interact with different parts of the authority." Attending political party fund raising events so as to bend the ears of key decision-makers has not previousy been promoted as a form of public participation in planning. At the time of writing, the RTPI, the independent professional body, has not issued a statement indicating whether or not it supports this innovative approach to public consultation.
Reforming planning in England
Currently the UK Government is reportedly preparing to launch a wide-ranging review of the planning system in England (planning is a devolved function in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). The English system has been reformed repeatedly over the past 40 years, though this might be the most far reaching yet. The thrust of the reforms seems likely to be towards greater centralisation of power and a more "efficient", less regulated consent regime. Already the system has been strongly tilted towards aiding developers, as indicated by the centrality attached to the "viability" of a development: "viability" is primarily determined by the calculations a developer makes. Climate change and flooding are Section 14 of the National Planning Policy Framework, starting on page 44. This suggests they are not the prime focus of the system, but more important than conservation of the natural and built environments that follow in subsequent sections.
During the progress through the Scottish Parliament of the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 it became clear that many people hold the planning system in disrepute. This sentiment crystallised around a call for Equal Rights of Appeal, which would have allowed third parties a right of appeal in certain defined circumstances. I wrote a blog at the time, in which I spoke of "the power relationships that have led to a loss of public confidence in the planning system." If public consultation is to be command credibility, the actions of Jenrick and the advice of Zahawi must be rejected unequivocally.