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03/06/2020

Democracy shouldn't suffer just because the show must go on

In the rush to keep the planning system operational during the Covid-19 epidemic, planners risk overlooking one very important element, says Lucinda Rogers - the people the system is supposed to serve

In late March on the pretext of Covid19, the public was shut out of an Enfield planning committee that determined one of the largest applications ever dealt with by the borough. The applicant’s argument was read to the meeting, but a deposition by residents went unheard.

Responses to the Coronavirus Act 2020 by local authorities mean a postcode lottery for democracy. The least democratic have delegated decisions to officers, while others will recreate virtual committees, some allowing third parties to speak, others that permit only written statements. The well-resourced, computer-literate citizen has the advantage.

The Just Space network has co-written a statement of principles to councils and the housing secretary, asking them to uphold standards for the public voice in the planning process and to recognise the public’s role in securing better, more resilient development. Just Space is a community-led network of voluntary and action groups influencing planning policy, focused on issues of social justice and economic and environmental sustainability. Planning committee stage – even with a pitiful three minutes of speaking time – can be the final chance to expose the flaws in a scheme.

 “Planning committee stage – even with a pitiful three minutes of speaking time – can be the final chance to expose flaws”

The Covid-19 upheaval has revealed something known for years; the system operates happily without public input. In Zoom webinars we see chief officers and property developers in cosy collaboration. “We’ve never been closer,” said one developer. “We’re open for business,” say officers, who argue the planning show must go on; the government implies the same. We’re told the show must go on for the economy’s sake, but not all development genuinely helps the economy.

The deputation ignored at Enfield found three main deficiencies in the application: too little open space and sports provision, job losses caused by the replacement of employment areas with housing, and the lack of rented housing for low-income residents. These are familiar concerns that have gained urgency through the lens of the Covid19 epidemic. We find we need green space for health, we need to manufacture our own stuff, and we need to house the people providing vital services.

Planning in the Covid Era: A Joint Statement by Just Space, CPRE London, Friends of the Earth and London Forum of Amenity and Civic Societies

Lucinda Rogers is an artist and member of the Just Space network

Image credit | iStock

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