I have spent the last 6 working days in a local town council chamber, attending a planning Inquiry, diligently sitting quietly at the back whilst a government inspector considered the merits of an appeal by two housing developers against the refusal of planning permission to add a total of 120 houses to the small village where I live. This would be a 30% increase in housing, all of it outside the defined boundary of the village. I was part of a group of local people monitoring events. I write email summaries of each day. The Inspector mostly sits quietly as well, whilst two barristers and a QC (and around 13 witnesses) argue it out.
It was just like being back at work: sitting listening to articulate and intelligent people endlessly dispute arcane points of meaning and interpretation, hoping to score points. I do not mean that kindly. I have another 3 days to look forward to this week, and then more in September as the Inquiry will have to reconvene as the planning inspectorate did not allow enough time for the Inquiry. This is because they failed to anticipate that the two developers would spend a lot of time attacking each others' plans. In point of fact, they seem to have done that for about 50% of the time so far, though yesterday brought a rare unanimity as attention turned to how many people would be living in the county by 2026. Here, rates of out- and in-commuting for work were a key focus. The village hardly got a mention.
I say all this, not to seek sympathy, or even understanding. Rather, it's because sustainable development has featured so prominently in some of the discussions. There's a presumption in favour of sustainable development within the UK planning system which you might think must a good thing – well it's better than the reverse, I suppose. But what does sustainable development mean in this context? Well, it seems that house building can only be allowed within sustainable communities and the law says that these are those where there are employment opportunities, scope for social engagement and well-being, good infrastructure and ready access to facilities (shops, schools, doctors, culture, etc), efficient transport links in place, and where ecological systems can be enhanced, for example by boosting biodiversity. It follows that developers have to show that where they want to build is already sustainable and/or that what they propose will make it more so. How a small village (400 houses; church and small school; no shop; little employment; poor bus service) can be sustainable is beyond me, but the developers say it is, despite a recent increase in both market and affordable housing. Meanwhile, fine argumentation about multiple small points continues its glacial pace, and the public waits patiently for the killer blow. I'll let you know what the Inspector says in due course.