Last week I spent a couple of afternoons sitting in on the planning inquiry hearing the appeal against Cambridge city councillors’ decision to refuse an application by Tesco to extend a building on Mill Road in which they are planning to run a Tesco Express store.
I strongly oppose centrally appointed planning inspectors interfering with and potentially overruling locally made democratic decisions. Where local decisions have been properly made, legitimately justified and due process has been followed I think they should stand. I think the local democratic process for dealing with planning applications such as these ought be strengthened to make it harder for planning inspectors to justify overturning their decisions. Having an opportunity to take some particularly controversial decisions to a planning committee made up of all council members would be one option for reinforcing local democracy.
While I have expressed my support for local democratic decision making, I was able to see some benefits of the public inquiry process; it enabled democratic representatives who had not been involved in initial decision, such as in this case County Councillors, to participate. Members of the public were, in this appeal at least, able to have much greater involvement in the process than is possible when councillors are considering an application. I am cautious though that much of the discussion and debate may just be theatre designed to give the impression of all being able to have their say. After all at the end of the process, one individual, who is not democratically accountable, makes a decision alone.
I believe planning ought be a democratic not a judicial process. The set up of the planning inquiry is very much like a court, with the planning inspector sitting as judge and jury and lots of references to “m’learned friend”. In this case we had legal representatives on each side – one representing Tesco and one representing the Council. The parties both called various witnesses, including highways consultants and retail experts.
A few items raised during the process surprised me :
- Tesco told the inquiry that they would open an express store on the site if this appeal was upheld or not. It is of course possible that this was a lie or a bluff. I believe lying to a planning inquiry is considered contempt of court.
- The council’s case was not based on not wanting a Tesco on Mill Road, it was based on the unsuitability of this particular site due to difficulties relating to servicing and deliveries. It was agreed that there was: “no retail policy point taken against the proposals” and “no environmental objection”. This may be obvious, but I don’t think the press coverage, which has focused on the no Mill Road Tesco campaign has made this clear.
- It was reported that the county council, the highways authority had stated they were not minded to amend the relevant traffic regulation order to enable lorries to deliver to the back of the store by going the wrong way up Sedgwick Street.
- There was occasional incidental discussion of the “current application” relating to air conditioning and refrigeration plants, it was suggested by both legal representatives that this decision is subject to an appeal too, and that it was not being considered at this inquiry.
- I was surprised Tesco was prepared to accept very stringent conditions relating to the air con and refrigeration plants – right down to specifying a particular make and model of the equipment, specifying its sound insulation, permitted noise levels and times of operation. On the times of operation it was able to accept refrigeration only running while the store is open, which left me wondering what would happen to stock outside those times.
- Tesco claimed their Mill road store, if opened without the extension, would be “totally unique”, it would not be similar to some of the very small stores the company operates in Central London eg. near Trafalgar Square, and it will not be a typical Express Store due to the fact the range of goods it could stock would be constrained.
- A statement by Communities Secretary Hazel Blears was brought up in which she had said: “Our priority is to ensure we do not see more and more stretches of the nation’s high streets turned into bland ‘every towns’ where every high street has the same shops, the same look and the same sterile feel. We need more individuality, more small-scale independent shops and a new spirit of independent enterprise on our high streets.” The Inspector was asked what weight he would give that by Tesco’s representative, who argued that “competition is not a planning matter”.
- Even by the fourth day of the five day inquiry the statement of common ground was not agreed between the sides and presented to the Inspector.
- The Inspector appeared to be really hamming it up in “considering” the views of a “Mr Yates”, a member of the public who had requested no deliveries and no use of the refrigeration and air conditioning on Sundays when discussing potential conditions which could be attached to an approval of the planning permission. I thought I would note this here as Mr Yates was not present for this phase of proceedings – but I can assure him that the Inspector – at least theatrically, “considered” his views.
- Unusually, and without explanation the inspector’s site visit was conducted at 9am on Friday morning, on the last day of the Inquiry, it is usually held after the inquiry has concluded.
The process was reasonably open to the public; by the end of the first day almost thirty people had signed the voluntary attendance register, including representatives of the press, councillors and members of the public. The planning inspector gave everyone many opportunities to participate, anyone could have walked in and spoken. After the first morning there were generally about ten members of the public present at any time, with people freely walking in and out.
There were a few things which could have been done to improve things:
- The leaflet entitled – Guide to taking part in planning appeals could have been made available. A note on the Inspector’s procedures relating to this particularly inquiry would have been useful, for example in this case it was not strictly necessary to be present at the start of the inquiry to be able to speak.
- The guildhall receptionists could have been briefed better on what was going on, for example on day one a number of members of the public were in the council chamber’s public gallery, when others were much closer to the action.
- The Planning Inspectorate’s own guidance to host institutions on provision of venues suggests it should be signposted. Had there been signs to the inquiry, noting the fact it was open to all, placed in the shopping areas surrounding the guildhall more members of the public might have attended and participated.
- Approaching the venue from the side entrance to the guildhall, it was necessary to pass a number of “no entry” signs to reach the venue
- At the end of the first day, the Sonia Cooter, the leader of the “No Mill Road Tesco campaign” had to ask if she was expected, or allowed, to make a written submission along with her verbal statements. The Inspector explained that she could just speak, but that generally if the speech involved new evidence being introduced, rather than simply expressing an opinion then it would be useful to submit a written statement so it could be made available in advance to all parties. It would have been useful if this guidance had been made available in advance. I wonder if councillors, who did submit written statements, had been advised but members of the public had not?
- There was no option for the public, or even the “No Mill Road Tesco campaign” to obtain copies of key documents, such as the statement of common ground, or the proposed conditions.
- The inquiry documents were not posted on a website; I think it would be a good idea for the proceedings of significant planning inquiries to be posted on a website in the form of: www.stockwellinquest.org.uk/ or www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk. What information is available online via the PlanningPortal website is out of date, at the time of writing after the inquiry there is still no date for the inquiry, or decision listed. The only “document” available states: “We regret that we are not currently publishing documents for this appeal…”.
I would like to see details of many more court cases, inquests, and public inquires made available online, a step which would make them much more accessible
No due date has been given for the Inspector’s decision, and while it was possible to give an email or postal address to Cambridge City Council staff at the inquiry to be used to send a copy of the decision the rest of us will have to wait until it is posted on planningportal.gov.uk, I hope that will be at the same time it is made available to everyone else; I will be pleasantly surprised if it is.