Opinion: Planning in Rochdale descends into farce

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:

His wife, Karen, who was on the Planning Committee went much further, retweeting a number of criticisms of her Labour colleague including this:

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)

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  • David Wilkinson 21st Feb '13 - 12:35pm

    The planning officers where very brave to make those comments on TV, their careers will have been shorten.
    The way the committee was run by the Labour councillor and the speed of the decision made a quasi legal process look very dodgy

  • Tony Greaves 21st Feb '13 - 1:46pm

    What do you expect from the Labour Party? It’s in their DNA in the North of England and always has been.

    Tony Greaves

  • Whenever I hear anyone advocate greater local democracy with more power devolved to local authorities, I say great idea in principle but what if yours is one of the many councils up and down the country that are not unlike Rochdale

  • Tony Dawson 21st Feb '13 - 7:37pm

    The trouble with planning is that the ability to question ‘yes’ decisions is so much poorer than the ability to question/overturn ‘no’ decisions. What chance is there that anyone has the means to judicially review this decision – or others like it?

    Of course, the Chief Executive of Rochdale MBC, if said person had any cojones, might rule that there was not actually a valid decision taken here due to the processes being so disgraceful they must be invalid. But one would not hold on’e breath!

  • Politicians should never have quasi-judicial roles. See also the issues with the BSkyB takeover bid.

  • As with the collapse of the Vicky Pryce trial, perhaps we should start to question whether there should be some form of basic competency training and testing for councillors.

  • I’m not sure it is correct to categorise planning as quasi-judicial. See the Court of Appeal in R (Lewis) v Redcar & Cleveland Borough Council and Persimmon Homes:

    “The Committee which granted planning permission consisted of elected members who would be entitled, and indeed expected, to have, and to have expressed, views on planning issues. When taking a decision Councillors must have regard to material considerations and only to material considerations, and to give fair consideration to points raised, whether in an Officer’s report to them or in representations made to them at a meeting of the Planning Committee. Sufficient attention to the contents of the proposal, which on occasions will involve consideration of detail, must be given. They are not, however, required to cast aside views on planning policy they will have formed when seeking election or when acting as Councillors. The test is a very different one from that to be applied to those in a judicial or quasi-judicial position. ”


  • Martin Lowe 22nd Feb '13 - 4:46pm

    And in the interests of balance, in Episode 1 a Conservative councillor who styled herself as ‘The Iron Lady of Cheltenham’ was rude to a planning applicant in the woman’s own garden and then subsequently steered the committee to refuse a dropped kerb in a street full of dropped kerbs.

    Honestly – we’ve got a ludicrous system where there’s tons of rules about how something looks yet a virtual free-for-all when it comes to sound insulation, room sizes and build quality.

    I can’t get my head around the stupidity of it all – I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.

  • What an utter disgrace, really, given all the rules we have for this sort of committee, one of them should mandate full discussion until no -one has anything left to add, before taking a vote.

    And peter.tyzack, I’m not sure what you mean by”locational context” I’m, not sure it’s a thing, I just looked through my dictionary and locational is definitely not in there

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