Could a proposed new planning system for Wales take major decisions about our local areas away from elected representatives? Politics File looks at the controversy over a new Welsh law.
PROPOSED new laws could take decisions on big planning decisions out of the hands of local democracy and deny local communities a voice.
That’s according to pressure groups that have rounded on the Welsh Government for its proposals to reform the planning system in Wales.
But the Welsh Government says its draft planning bill and its recent consultation, which ended last month, detail proposals to modernise the planning system in Wales through changes to the law, planning policy and the guidance given.
It says that there needs to be a change in attitude away from regulating development towards encouraging and supporting development.
Currently councils set out their future vision of what their areas might look like in years to come in their local development plans.
However, the consultation suggests that strategic development plans could be drawn up to cover housing, employment, transport, gypsy and traveller position and waste over a region rather than just one authority.
The Welsh Government says this wouldn’t be suitable for every area – but does propose that such a plan could be drawn up in South Wales with Cardiff as the focus.
This would be prepared by representatives from local planning bodies who have been nominated to a panel that would include councillors.
However, a third of its membership would be made up of “economic, social and environmental partners”.
Officials have also proposed that Welsh ministers would decide on the largest infrastructure planning applications, rather than local councils – in what’s said to be an echo of similar changes in England.
The proposed bill has raised concerns with environment group Friends of the Earth, which claimed the Welsh Government was taking “unprecedented powers to make planning decisions that rightly belong at the local level, without justification”.
It said that the regional panels proposed are not “wholly democratic, introducing vested interests into regional plan and failing to consider the consequences of this change in terms of public legitimacy and trust.”
A response from the group to the consultation said that the Welsh Government was offering “no real opportunities for better community involvement in decision-making”.
Gareth Clubb, of Friends of the Earth, said: “These new laws on planning proposed by the Welsh Government could undermine local democracy, with decisions on big projects made by new ‘regional panels’.
“Big businesses would be included, but communities and local businesses wouldn’t even have the right to be heard.
“We’re worried the desire for bigger profits would win over what’s right for local communities, local producers and local economies. Any new planning laws must protect the people and environment of Wales, now and in the future”.
A major housing building industry body has supported the measures. Andrew Whittaker, of the House Building Federation, said: “We’re generally positive about it. We think there are a lot of things in there which mean we will be able to see a lot more development in Wales.”
The body has agreed with the creation of regional plans, saying it believed such a system in Wales is long overdue and would bridge the gap that exists between national and local policy.
Members of the panels should include a representative from the house-building industry, the HBF argued.
Councillor Paul Hannon, chairman of the Newport council planning committee, said that he thinks the existing planning system works “surprisingly well”, and said it was important people locally feel they have a say on decisions that affect their lives.
He said provisions for joint plans between authorities were good, saying it would “make sense for us and Cardiff to co-operate on sites for housing”.
Welsh-language pressure group Cymdeithas yr Iaith has also raised concerns about the proposed changes.
In a letter to Planning Minister Carl Sargeant, campaigners said a number of elements of the draft bill raised serious concerns “about the lack of democracy in the planning system”.
The group said that plans for strategic development plans were undemocratic and put power over development plans in unelected individuals’ hands.
The group has been concerned that the bill doesn’t include a single reference to the language – and has proposed its own bill to outline a package of changes in order to protect Welsh-speaking communities.
A Welsh Government spokesman said: “Consultation on the draft Planning (Wales) Bill closed recently and we are now considering the responses received.”