South East Liberal Democrats back dynamic ideas for “People’s Advocate” in planning issues and bigger role for chambers of commerce in local economic development

Liberal Democrats from across the south east of England gathered in Canterbury on 17thNovember for their annual regional conference. Held at the city’s Spires Academy, the conference heard from MPs Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne), Ed Davey (Kingston) and Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) as well as Baroness Judith Jolly and the Leader of the Opposition on Kent County Council, Cllr Rob Bird. 

Canterbury and Coastal Liberal Democrats proposed two motions. Both were endorsed by the conference by overwhelmingly majorities.  They will now be considered at national level.

The first idea proposed is in response to the widely held feeling in communities across the country that ordinary people don’t get a proper hearing on planning matters. 

In cities, towns and villages across the South East ordinary voters feel the cards are stacked against them. They see developers hiring expensive lawyers, planning consultants and PR firms that dominate the process and shut out objections. 

The Liberal Democrat idea is that communities will be able to able to apply for a match funded grant of up to £5,000 from their local council. With money from their own resources added to the council grant, a community will be able to hire a legal, planning or public relations expert, known as “A People’s Advocate,”  to guide them and help them shape their campaign. 

Canterbury  Liberal Democrats say this is a  simple, cheap and understandable proposal that would introduce a safety valve into the democratic process. “It is not a ‘Nimby’s charter”, said one of its proposers, “but a way of putting a bit more power and influence into the hands of local people. It should also improve the dialogue between communities, developers and councils by giving residents a bit more muscle.”

The grant money would not come from local taxpayers but from central government. Each council will be awarded an annual  ‘Grants pot” of £50,000, with large councils getting proportionately more. 

Empowering Chambers of Commerce

Another overwhelming majority backed the Canterbury party’s second proposal to help develop the chambers of commerce movement across England, so that every town and region would have its own chamber. A fund of £100 million would be allocated by central government over five years to meet the cost of setting up new chambers and strengthening existing chambers. 

Canterbury  Liberal Democrats say that for too long central government has imposed economic development strategies that are often remote and unaccountable. They say that chambers of commerce can be empowered to have a bigger say in developing business skills, apprenticeship training and all life training. Chambers would become economic development hubs, as much for farmers and growers as accountants and hoteliers. 

“We want to make sure that Chambers of Commerce become a force for progress everywhere. That they are listened to and have the legal right to be heard. There are now five million self-employed people in the UK and they need a voice and towns can have a more powerful engine for economic development,” says one of the idea’s originators.

Genuine debating chambers

“More than any other party, Liberal Democrats depend on members to originate and develop policy,” says Nigel Whitburn, Chairman of Canterbury & Coastal Liberal Democrats. “Our Federal Conferences are not just a platform for party big wigs to be seen on TV, but genuine debating chambers where policy proposals are considered, amended, adopted or rejected. I am delighted that local members are coming up with innovative ideas that may soon be national policy.”

* Martin Roche is a member of Canterbury Liberal Democrats

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This entry was posted in News and Party policy and internal matters.


  • Innocent Bystander 22nd Nov '18 - 12:46pm

    Sooo,,,,, the taxpayer has to fund a legal challenge against the Council who they are already funding. So they are suing themselves.
    Why don’t they just vote for competent, and representative, councillors in the first place?

  • Great news. I’ve long thought the problem with this country is that we are building too many homes and apartments. Hopefully we can slow down building by re-purposing funds earmarked for various social issues to give landowners a pot of money they can use to keep their area in stasis.

  • Callum Robertson 22nd Nov '18 - 12:55pm

    Ahh how

  • Callum Robertson 22nd Nov '18 - 12:56pm

    ahh a NIMBY charter…
    As a party we should be better than this.

  • Callum Robertson 22nd Nov '18 - 12:57pm

    This is a NIMBY charter under a different name

  • As a young person in the south of England, I’m delighted to hear that the Lib Dems are working hard in my interests. The last thing I need right now are for houses to be built so I can live in them. I’m sure myself and many other young people will be delighted to pay for the lobbying against these houses, which we definitely don’t need, out of the (very little) money we have. What really takes this idea to the next level is that the money comes from taxpayers across the country, not just local taxpayers, so I can happily fund NIMBYism across the country – excelllent!

    Seriously though why does this party hate young people so much?

  • Callum Robertson 22nd Nov '18 - 1:17pm

    I too enjoy being comprehensively shafted by people determined to make the housing market fail

  • Peter Watson 22nd Nov '18 - 2:07pm

    @David Raw “what’s left of the party has become the right of the party”
    Brilliantly witty line! 🙂
    Thankfully, the response to this article has reassured me a little that what’s left of the left of the party still has some life in it.
    P.S. Had to google “tonsure” so I learnt something as well. Great post!

  • Stephen Howse 22nd Nov '18 - 2:15pm

    If this NIMBY’s charter ever becomes party policy, I’m resigning my membership.

    It’s not enough that local Lib Dem campaigners spend half their time cynically trying to block much needed housing developments in order to appease those who own their homes already – now they’re supposed to be paid to do it? This is disgraceful.

  • Andy Briggs 22nd Nov '18 - 2:21pm

    Seeing 3 of the commenters here are on the board of Liberal Reform, I am personally delighted that we’re now being considered as the ‘left’ of the party.

  • Callum Robertson 22nd Nov '18 - 2:30pm

    I feel the SLF may have a bit of a problem with the board of Liberal Reform being described as the left of the party.

  • clive englisjh 22nd Nov '18 - 3:05pm

    This proposal is frankly barking mad and I cant see how any sane group of people could possibly endorse it. Heaven knows there are failings with the Planning System and as Chairman of a Planning Committee I see them every day, but very few of these will be solved by expecting a Council to pay thousands of pounds to consultants or barristers to represent objectors, or indeed supporters of an application a planning department has recommended for refusal.
    In an authority with a high level of applications we are talking about hundreds of thousands of pounds per annum additional costs to the planning system. This will inevitably mean that Councils will have to reduce staff or other costs. It is likely that this will fall mostly on the discretionary services such as Planning Enforcement, which will cease to function in many authorities if this sort of cost burden is added.
    I would add that having observed the actions of barristers, and other consultants, hired by Planning Objectors, mostly by Parish Councils, they are actually rarely value for money, but they do lead to larger numbers of judicial challenges. One Parish Council in my area has blown £100,000 on unsuccessful judicial reviews against the Borough Council. Why should the Planning Authority have to pay for any of that sort of irresponsible behaviour?.

  • Peter Watson 22nd Nov '18 - 3:11pm

    @Callum Robertson “I feel the SLF may have a bit of a problem with the board of Liberal Reform being described as the left of the party.”
    Mea culpa.
    Oh dear, I seem to have been confused. The only excuse I can offer is that the economic liberal responses (I saw “social issues” but “market” should have been a clue!) appeared to be leftwards of the small-c conservatism (aimed at big-C Conservatives?) in the article. Maybe David Raw is correct, and what is left of the Lib Dems is the right of the Lib Dems. 🙁

  • Daniel Carr 22nd Nov '18 - 3:18pm

    @Peter Watson – I fear my (not obviously enough) tongue in cheek remark re repurposing the money away from tackling social issues is to blame.

    For clarity: this is not a good idea in my (orange) book!

  • David Becket 22nd Nov '18 - 3:22pm

    I cannot see either of these two bright (sic) ideas do anything to solve the issues of homelessness and inequality that plague our current society. As far as the first idea is concerned this was the role I undertook in twenty years as a local councillor, advising residents how to put their case.
    Let us hope that these, and any more similar ideas, do not become national policy.
    As it is I am starting to wonder if I am in the right party.

  • clive englisjh 22nd Nov '18 - 3:32pm

    There are many issues that could be addressed in planning and many ways it could be improved. Sadly the Canterbury motion, whilst well meaning, addresses none of them. It will lead to less favourable outcomes than is currently the case as Planning Departments buckle under the cost.
    Finally those of us who do not agree with this motion are not indulging in a knee jerk reaction, for the most part.
    My personal view is that if you want to give the public more control one should start by removing the right to submit retrospective planning applications and rolling back the government’s changes to permitted development rights that we as a party have done nothing about. These changes would do far more to empower local communities than pouring large amounts of public money down an open drain.

  • At Martin Roche’s invitation I have read the article again, but I find no reference to local people requesting sports halls or better architectural esthetics. As we all know, in practice the public get pretty upset about any building anywhere near them,whether it be to provide much needed housing or jobs. They get upset when the council fail to support them because they don’t understand that decisions are taken on strict planning criteria, not on the popularity of the idea.
    Unless the article h done the actual motion a great disservice, I fail to see how fellow liberals can support this.
    I’m no keener on the other motion. More power in the hands of local self selecting elites. I don’t think so.

  • Nom de Plume 22nd Nov '18 - 4:09pm

    The purpose of the grant needs to be clearly specified. If you only have “South East ordinary voters feel the cards are stacked against them” and ” a community will be able to hire a legal, planning or public relations expert”, you have a Nimby’s charter. From what I’ve seen local residents are vey active in lobbying against, and somtimes stopping, local developments.

    Thanks for the update all the same.

  • Nonconformistradical 22nd Nov '18 - 4:24pm
  • This is perverse – we are asking people who cannot afford decent housing, to contribute with their taxes, towards publicly funded lawyers who will argue against that same decent housing. That this was put forward by the regional party of an area facing an acute housing crisis is a demonstration of a total lack of serious, credible commitment by the local parties in that area to proper housing policy – indeed, to proper consideration of issues of social justice and reform. They should be absolutely ashamed of themselves for demanding that the young and poor fund campaigns that will see them denied badly needed decent homes in places that are desperately short of housing. Utterly disgusting.

  • I might be reading this wrong, but to me rather than seeing the proposal as handing money to wealthy home owners it looks more like an attempt to redress the imbalance of power between communities and big business, for example to raise challenges to say fracking.

  • There are 2 particular points I would reform the planning system with:

    1. Make the planning system more symmetrical – only developers not objectors can appeal to the central government planning inspectorate at the moment. There was a relatively sensible proposal in the Conservative 2010 manifesto to that end that unfortunately never got enacted.

    2. That local councils are not liable for costs if they turn down an application and the developer wins on appeal. Certainly on my council, officers would put the fear of god into councillors on the planning committee by saying if you reject this the inspectorate will accept it on appeal and we will be liable for costs.

    On the Canterbury motion – I think people are misunderstanding it. Developers often have substantial legal departments. Small developers will hire planning consultants, architects etc. who know the law and regulations and both get paid from the profits of the development. Planning is a difficult process for ordinary people and it is “quasi-legal”. As I understand the proposed money is to help with this aspect of the process and to level the playing field. NOT about suing the council or judicial reviews.

    I like to think I became quite expert on the sort of planning issues that came up in my ward and along with my fellow Lib Dem ward colleagues, we won quite a few cases where the planning officer had recommended approval and indeed the decisions were upheld on appeal. But I was always aware that I wasn’t trained in this or planning professional or a lawyer and many cases took tens of hours of work.

    The issues are often not about building houses but building houses in the appropriate way. I had a fairly big development in my ward in a former light industrial site – neither I nor the residents objected to the development per se – but we did object to some aspects of it – for them and for me dealing with a big builder was very difficult.

    (A “Planning Advocate” would have been very helpful and probably would have got the development built quicker!)

  • Innocent Bystander 22nd Nov '18 - 6:30pm

    Thank you for your proposal that I read your piece again. Could I also propose that you write it again?

  • I suspect our interpretation of this idea is coloured by our experiences of the planning system. The case that jumped out to me as being potentially relevant was one where the head of planning and development told the architect just how big to make their snazzy new hotel/office complex, and he confided to me that he didn’t originally plan for it to be as big. The ugly truth was that the council would be paid for the land according to the scale of the development, and the developer wasn’t going to say no, because they had more hotel rooms and office space to sell.

    The locals were all dismayed as were many local businesses, but it was rushed through the planning system in super-fast time to limit the scope for objections, which were all ignored anyway. Members of the public and local community groups wanted to appeal the decision, but it turns out that’s not allowed.

    I don’t suppose this scheme would help in scenarios where there is no legal recourse to appeal, but there are definitely situations where there is a power imbalance and it isn’t all about not wanting new housing where you walk your dog etc. I’m also aware of several commercial/industrial planning applications in my general vicinity that would have been damaging to the environment, but the local environmental health team and local activists were having to argue against teams of lawyers, their PRs people and the promise of (really not very good quality) jobs.

    However, I totally get why people are concerned that this could just become a tool for NIMBYs to waste public time and money objecting to perfectly reasonable development proposals. We really can’t afford this to be the case, and if anything, grant funding should be made available to housing charities, or other groups wanting to build community facilities.

    I appreciate what I hope is the intention of this proposal, but please proceed with great caution.

  • David Becket 22nd Nov '18 - 10:25pm

    Whilst deeply unhappy with the idea as proposed if developers of projects over a specific size could be required to deposit a sum that could be used for organised objections that might solve the issue. No objections and the developer gets the money back.

  • I think many commenting here aren’t actually very familiar with the planning system, or with the real causes of why there is a shortage of housing.

    I think the real issue, which I think this proposal is trying to address is how to both make the planning system fairer and more honest.

    However, from my observations of the shenanigans going in Northamptonshire (as the County Council tries to sell community assets to the highest bidder so they can ‘balance the budget’), where it seems all levels of local government are more interested in the gains from development than actually protecting community assets and so put all sorts of obstacles in the way community groups who are interested in taking on those assets, the real problem is making local government more honest and accountable when it comes to development…

  • Joyce Onstad 23rd Nov '18 - 6:24am

    I welcome the idea of a People’s Advocate. Surely the intention is to rebalance power and even the playing field so there is informed debate to presumably ensure developments meet environmental and community needs. What could be more Liberal.

  • Joyce – this policy is shamefully illiberal. It will tax the poor, housing insecure, and young, and funnel that money into lawyers and PR consultants to help people block badly needed housing developments on the usual spurious NIMBY grounds. No progressive party should be in the business of demanding those without a voice subsidise a megaphone for those our planning system already hears much too loudly. It’s made worse by the fact this was endorsed by a region facing a serious housing crisis; a real slap in the face to those of us who believe a Liberal party must be in favour of everyone having a good home, this.

  • Tony Greaves 23rd Nov '18 - 4:19pm

    I am not sure that a People’s Advocate is the best way forward, but there is no doubt that the present planning system is a shambles. In the housing field is already in hoc to the big developers who don’t care about anything or anyone except their bottom lines – they are just capitalist bandits. And by the way, the “first stage” of the planning system is hardly the submission of a planning application. The whole plan-making set-up is bust.

  • Mick Taylor 23rd Nov '18 - 4:38pm

    There is actually a very simple change to the way planning operates that would go a long way to end the farce it has become. When I was first a councillor and a planning committee member I met with developers and opponents and listened to what they had to say and then went to the planning committee armed with full information to make a decision. There was none of this nonsense about fettering my discretion.
    Councillors on planning committees need to be able to have open discussions with whoever they want not be told by legal ‘experts’ that they must not talk to anybody and make their minds up solely on the basis of what is said at the committee.
    We also have to be imaginative about housebuilding and councils must be able to insist that affordable houses are ALWAYS part of any development however large or small with no let outs. There is still plenty of land to build on without encroaching on the greenbelt, but some of it requires action to prepare it for housing (Viz: contaminated land] and funds must be found for this.
    Breaking up local housebuilding monopolies may be necessary as well. Big builders are not necessarily good builders and I have heard horrendous stories of the lengths they are prepared to go to prevent objections.
    Our housing policy must be to provide houses for everyone, not just those with lots of money.

  • Neil Sandison 26th Nov '18 - 11:06am

    No matter how hard we try someone is always going to be unhappy about a planning decision .i would not encourage a Nimby charter as i am sure this will be tagged by developers but would support developers paying for pre-application consultations on major developments of 10 or more units .It should be remembered planning decisions are made on planning grounds and policy directed by national government through the NPPF .not because we dont like the development A pre-application consultative hearing independently chaired would meet the thrust of this arguement but the decision like Local Plans would remain legally binding on both parties.

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