I know many current and former councillors would agree with me that being on a municipal planning committee is a thankless task. Explaining the quasi-judicial element of the role to residents can be a nightmare. Every council contains councillors of different shapes, sizes and abilities. That is why the role of a planning officer is critical – to help you through complex planning law. We may not agree with their advice but we need concrete planning reasons on which to base our decisions. Or do we?
The recent BBC programme The Planners certainly brought back memories for me about my time on Manchester City Council. I organised numerous petitions but got hugely frustrated with the process. We won quite a few planning applications on behalf of residents only to find many decisions being overturned as applicants appealed to the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol. We were continually upset, but there was nothing we could do!
This brings me to last week’s episode of The Planners, the third episode of this reality show following the planning process. An application for a new mosque in Rochdale was featured. As I said at the start of this piece, the process is meant to be non-political. Councillors are supposed to vote on the facts presented alone with no outside interference. In my opinion the programme shows that these principles were not adhered to in Rochdale. Have a look here around the 48 minute mark. Rochdale Online also discusses the programme here.
I have never seen a more disgraceful abuse of power as took place during the committee meeting. A planning officer points out on a site visit with councillors various reasons as to why it should be refused, including the fact that they needed more than 100 parking spaces to meet government guidelines. They only had 3. They also pointed out that the design was poor with no windows.
The planning meeting descended into farce! The Labour chair, Councillor Shefali Begum, refused to listen to any questions from opposition councillors. Our excellent councillor Wera Hobhouse was aggressively shouted down as she tried to ask questions and the planning officer was rudely spoken to when trying to give her reasons for recommending refusal. A vote was swiftly taken and the application was passed, much to the bemusement of planning officers. Many of the councillors who had voted the application through then celebrated with the applicants.
It’s worth having a look at some of the dozens of comments. After the documentary was aired, Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk went into ‘spin’ mode. He tweeted:
— Simon Danczuk (@SimonDanczuk) February 16, 2013
His wife, Karen, who was on the Planning Committee went much further, retweeting a number of criticisms of her Labour colleague including this:
— Ashley Leaney (@AshleyLeaney) February 14, 2013
This extraordinary attack on a fellow councillor clearly illustrates the deep divisions in the local Labour Party.
So, what is the way forward? Firstly, just to say I don’t begrudge the Shia Muslim community or any other community in Rochdale better facilities. It’s just the way some on the committee went about it, refusing to work with planning officers. The farcical way this decision was made needs to be investigated at the highest level and a judgement made about whether the process complied with the law.
Finally in this ‘fly on the wall’ documentary, the planning officer points out that sometimes planning decisions can be politically motivated. Is the fly on the wall about to become the fly in the ointment? Only time will tell.
* Dave Hennigan is a Lib Dem member in Macclesfield (formerly Levenshulme)