POLITICS: What price democracy?

Northumberland Estates  housing in Warkworth.
Northumberland Estates housing in Warkworth.

At a time when the nation’s attention is correctly drawn to the horrendous losses and inhumanity of the ‘war to end all wars’, it is perhaps churlish and insensitive to raise the issue of the cost of democracy.

Daily we hear through the media of national political parties trying to out-bid each other on who really is the best custodian of our nation’s future.

In about five months’ time, the choice will be ours – well at least those who have managed to get themselves onto the Electoral Register and can be bothered to vote.

This is not an article having a go at those who choose not to vote. A cynical friend’s adage is ‘do not encourage them by voting’.

The ‘them’ are politicians. I don’t agree, though an interesting addition at the bottom of the ballot paper would be a box entitled ‘None of the above’. I suspect ‘None of the above’ would be returned with a healthy majority.

Turn-out by voters at all elections continues to take a worrying trend. In my opinion, there is merit in the Australian system of compulsory voting, but what action to take against non-compliance gives me sleepless nights.

The best proposal I can offer is a short educational course (self-funded of course), similar in nature to the speed awareness courses for those of us who occasionally fall foul of road traffic speed limits. But one comes up against the perennial problem of what embargo to impose on those who fail to attend?

While you ponder that, I draw your attention to the equally worrying aspect of our local democracy that few readers may be aware of, and gets to the very heart of the issue – what is the cost of local democracy?

Readers will be aware that Northumberland County Council manages locally-decided matters for the geographic area of Northumberland.

Key among its responsibilities (which are enormous in both scope and impact) is the responsibility for planning decisions. Or so I thought.

Locally-elected representatives (councillors) on planning committees must make decisions in accordance with the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), associated guidance and case law.

They must also apply these rules in a local context (Northumberland’s Local Plan – Core Strategy – currently out for final consultation).

So far, so good. As in all good systems, there is an appeal mechanism in-built to permit an aggrieved party the opportunity to appeal a decision of first instance.

This, in the case of planning issues, is provided by the government’s Planning Inspectorate, normally consisting of highly-experienced and knowledgeable planning professionals, yet the county council (funded by your and my taxes) has to meet the cost of such appeals should it over-turn a decision of the planning committee at first instance.

This loophole can be exploited by those (both developer or opposer) with deep pockets and this is surely at odds with the spirit of both the National Planning Policy Framework and Localism (NPPF) agenda.

When the NPPF was introduced in March 2012, Greg Clark, the then Planning Minister, wrote in the preface to the guidance: ‘Planning should be a collective enterprise. Yet in recent years planning has tended to exclude rather than include people and communities. Introducing neighbourhood planning addresses this’.

Later Mr Clark continues: ‘People have been put off by getting involved (in planning matters) because planning policy has become so elaborate and forbidding – the preserve of specialists, rather than people in communities. The National Planning Policy Framework changes all that’.

So when the prospective parliamentary candidates rock up (I prefer turn up) to your door over the next few weeks, ask them the following questions:

a) What will they (and the party they are representing) do to end the current abuse of the planning system?

b) How do they intend to put into effect the words of the former Planning Minister that planning matters should be about ‘people in communities’ and not an elitist group abusing local democracy?

If, at this point you are thinking, well that is a pretty obscure and irrelevant tale from someone with too much time on their hands; hold a while. That was probably the view of most of the residents of Morwick Road, Warkworth, who were delighted when proposals from Northumberland Estates to develop greenfield land south of Morwick Road, were refused planning permission on two occasions in December 2013.

Imagine their feelings and absolute incredulity in local democracy when the locally-arrived-at decisions were overturned by the Planning Inspectorate in November 2014.

To add insult to injury, your locally-elected representatives on the planning committee did not have an opportunity to consider the ruling of the Planning Inspector (apparently from Bath) and residents of Northumberland now have to pay the cost of the appeal to one of the richest families in the country.

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