Nowadays we are called ‘front-line’ councillors because much of our work is in on the doorstep. But there are times when what happens outside Headington, in the Town Hall, needs must take up the attention of councillors — and residents. It can be a frustrating distraction, but when the Council announces it intends to undermine radically the way things work and hinder the job of ward councillors, then it’s time to fight back.
One of those times is now. Much of the casework both Ruth and myself pursue relates to planning issues, because residents know that we, like all councillors, sit on our local Area Committee where planning decisions are made. But the Labour administration wants to stop that and take planning away from local decision-making. Not only that, but they want to do it without even going through the must basic process of consultation. So, earlier this week I wrote to some of my local residents for whom I’ve worked on planning issues. Here is what I said:
Dear Headington resident,
I am writing to you as you are one of the many people I have attempted to help in the past over a planning issue that has concerned you. Unfortunately, in the future, it will be more much difficult for me to be of assistance – if Labour at the Town Hall get their way.
Here is the background. At the moment, a large or controversial application can be heard in the local community, with local residents having their voice heard and their local councillors making the decision in front of them, at the Area Committee. Labour’s proposal is to stop that happening. They argue that this is inefficient and that planning should be decided away from the local area. They also want to decrease the number of councillors who can vote on planning. That will mean that councillors like me who are interested in working for the best interests of their patch but would not want to stick their nose into areas of the city they know less well will be excluded from all planning decision-making. They argue that instead a councillor like me could be an ‘advocate.’ They don’t seem to realise that councillors who are not making planning decisions are soon going to be out of touch with the changing demands of planning law and end up being unreliable advocates.
So, if I have helped you with advice before a planning meeting, if I have asked questions prompted by your concerns at an Area Committee, if I have appeared on behalf of you at a Planning Appeal, I have been glad to do all that and believe that, working with you, we have achieved some successes. But Labour want this to stop.
If this is the first you’ve heard of all this, that’s a mark of what makes this even worse: Labour are trying to push through this significant change without even consulting Oxford’s residents. They have made no attempt to ask the local people who go to Area Committees or who write in about planning applications what they would prefer.
Is there anything that can be done to stop this mean-spirited, half-baked plan? I will certainly be working hard to force Labour actually to consult and to listen to what local people say. You can help by writing to any Labour councillors you know asking them not to vote with their party on this key issue. But this is urgent: Labour have set a date of 15th December for a decision to be made.
If all this sounds party-political, I’m afraid it’s unavoidable. It is a Labour administration who are attempting to force this through – and, from what I’ve seen, it’s all too typical of their top-down attitude, telling people what is good for them, rather than letting people decide what they think will work for them.
And if I sound angry, that’s because I am. I have served Headington for more than six years, with planning being one of the ever-present issues in my post-bag. I don’t take kindly to being told part of my job is no longer any of my business.
I’ve been amazed by the level of reaction. One of the reasons that I want there to be proper consultation on this issue before a decision is made is because I really wouldn’t want to second-guess local opinion on this matter. But even I am surprised and relieved by the level of interest there is in planning and the desire to keep it local — coming from people of all persuasions and none.
At the moment, my own opinion is that there are three failings in what is proposed. First, it won’t do what it says on the packet: what’s proposed won’t achieve the savings or the ‘improved efficiency’ that is supposed to be its purpose. But that’s a problem for Labour who have come up with a plan which to my mind, and in the opinion of many local residents who have written to me, is wrong in principle: it flies in the face of the talk of community engagement which, it now appears, is empty rhetoric on their government’s part. But my own opinion is now — as it is whenever I discuss a particular planning application with objectors or the applicant — only tentative and provisional. Because my third point is that this is no way to make such an important decision. Consultation must come first. And I don’t mean consultation Tory-style where the County Council asks people a question and then ignores the answer. I want the Council on which I sit to be better than that: it should both give people the chance to comment and actually listen to the responses. Is it too much to ask for that? We will see on Monday.