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All politics and planning is local

29 May 2014

A week ago I lived in Hammersmith and Fulham led by the Conservatives where major developments are either underway or being planned including Charing Cross Hospital, and the Earls Court Exhibition Centres and West Kensington Estates. Today I have not moved, but now live in an authority held by Labour.

Politics can quickly change the dynamics of a community meaning it is critical those with an interest in the future of their community participate in local elections.

Politics can quickly change the dynamics of a community meaning it is critical those with an interest in the future of their community participate in local elections.

Last Thursday residents in parts of England and Northern Ireland voted in local elections to decide which councillors should represent their interests for the next four years. Elected councillors will make up committees (including the planning committee considering applications) which have a real impact on peoples’ lives.

Labour versus Conservative

In my particular neighbourhood the Labour Party ran a campaign highlighting its concern of Charing Cross Hospital being demolished and losing its A&E service to make room for luxury flats. The Conservative Party maintained a rebuilt hospital would retain A&E service. However, it is unclear what the council can do to keep current services given the decision in large part is up to the National Health Service and Secretary of State for Health advised by the Independent Reconfiguration Panel (IRP).

Labour also argued too few affordable homes are included within the master plan for the Earls Court Exhibition Centres and West Kensington Estates. The proposed development borders the neighbouring authority Kensington and Chelsea which remains under the control of Conservatives after last week's election.

Given the new political makeup of Hammersmith and Fulham Council some have cast doubt over the future of the £8 billion Earls Court master plan moving forward despite it already receiving outline planning permission by the two authorities and the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

The day after the election the BBC’s Sonya Jessup tweeted: “Stephen Cowan, Labour leader, Ham & Fulham, tells me some planned developments here will now be scrapped- won't say which #Vote2014”.

The day after the election the BBC’s Sonya Jessup tweeted: “Stephen Cowan, Labour leader, Ham & Fulham, tells me some planned developments here will now be scrapped- won't say which #Vote2014”.

This underscores how political planning can be and that elections can have a real impact. Anyone who has watched BBC Two's The Planners or Permission Impossible in its latest incarnation has gained some insight into how the planning system works.

Locally elected members are usually the first to decide whether a controversial planning application moves forward. The political nature of planning requires locally elected politicians to have a clear understanding of planning and the impact of their decisions, in addition to adequate capacity and resources for the planning officers providing evidence and making professional recommendations to members.

Planning as a scapegoat?

As I mention in an upcoming report to be published 17 June, Fostering Growth: Understanding and strengthening the economic benefits of planning, planners are oftentimes blamed for decisions and policies they are not responsible for as the planning system involves a range of different factors.

“Planning can be an easy scapegoat because it is complex and involves many different players including the national and local policies in place, planning officers, private-sector planning consultants and developers, statutory consultees, neighbours of the proposed development, politicians and ultimately an appeals process. If someone does not like a particular decision it is easy to point the finger at ‘planning’ no matter whether the decision was based on national or local policy, the recommendation of a planning officer, local councillor or appeals system.”

All major parties support residents being involved in shaping their community and all indications suggest neighbourhood planning in England is here to stay regardless of next year's election results which will decide who leads parliament. The first obvious step to shape your community is to elect people to represent your views.

Difficult to separate planning and politics

It is difficult to separate planning and politics meaning it is important for those who care about the community they live in to actively participate in local elections. Turnout for last week’s election in England and Northern Ireland is estimated to be 36 per cent. Turnout in Hammersmith and Fulham was just two percentage points higher at 38 per cent, but not nearly as high as many would hope.

Jim Hubbard is Policy and Networks Manager at the RTPI focusing on economic growth and regeneration. On Twitter you can follow him @hubrd.