Planning, politics and the public ‘insultation’ process

JOANNA WILLIAMS on why she’ll go down fighting for her dream of living in Wye

Let me first declare my interest in this shabby business — I am hoping to leave London and move to Wye this spring. I am concerned about the village’s future — and not just as a potential homeowner nimby. I did have a ‘wobble’ when I read about the Concordat, but in the end I have not been deterred. Maybe I’m just a bolshy red-head, but I decided I’d rather go down fighting than give up on a place that conjured so much of the magic of my otherwise London-based childhood.

I also knew of John Prescott’s grand plans for Ashford, so I was careful to do my research. I checked on the status of the land around Wye. I read Ashford’s development plans to see where the bulk of the new development would be — almost entirely to the west of the M20. I read the Wye Village Design Statement. I checked on-line for any planning applications in the Wye area.

So I knew, for example, that the borough’s planning guidelines permitted only ‘infilling and minor development’ in the villages, because there was ‘no quantitative justification’ for permitting new development outside the confines of settlements other than at sites allocated [in the borough’s development plan]. Development which would fill in important open gaps between what are two distinct settlements (e.g. Wye and Brook?) would not be permitted (EN11). I was reassured that ‘long term protection’ would be given to the Kent Downs AONB, and that priority would be given to the conservation or enhancement of natural beauty over other planning considerations (EN26). I knew that the Wye Village Design Statement was a mandatory part of the borough’s planning guidelines. I could go on, but you live there already so I think you get the picture.


You wouldn’t expect Wye Science Park and 5,000 houses to be allowed in the Lake District, so why is it acceptable for the North Downs?

You may therefore also know that in April 2005 — the same month that Ashford Council and KCC signed the ‘real’ concordat with Imperial — the Greater Ashford Development Framework was published. The document emphasised the importance of developing the Eureka Business Park to attract jobs to the Ashford area, and noted the superior competition it was then facing from business parks in North and Mid Kent. We now see the thing was a sham.

The planning authority is guided by the policies in the local Development Plan (including village design statements), and by other material considerations, such as government policy documents (on countryside protection and community involvement, for example).

The government’s position on AONBs, for example, is that the planning system should give them equivalent protection to National Parks. You wouldn’t expect Wye Science Park and 5,000 houses to be allowed in the Lake District, so why is it acceptable for the North Downs? “Only proven national interest and lack of alternative sites can justify an exception”. Expect Imperial College and Ashford Borough Council to be stressing these factors heavily – you can see their public documents are already full of these arguments.

In fact, if you look at the paper trail, it becomes clear that the various documents Save Wye has unearthed are part of a much longer, secret plan to make this project a fait accompli by the time it comes to the ‘consultation’ stage. Imperial’s plan needs to tick all the right boxes before it goes to planning — public consultation is just another box to be ticked, part of the project “sign-off”. At work, we call it ‘insultation’.

There are only two points in the planning process where the public can have their say: when the local development plan is prepared; and when planning applications are made. Well, I’ve read the local development plan and there’s nothing in it that suggests it’s okay to build an industrial estate and thousands of homes all over Wye Downs. But since the public were consulted about the local development plan — tick! — we don’t need to worry about such details.

Now, Ashford’s local development framework expires in 2006, so it’s all up for grabs again. Imperial has been manoeuvring itself into position for quite some time, ready for the off. It’s a large piece of work for the borough — lots of strategies to be written — so the ‘community involvement’ element of the new development plan won’t happen until later, as the strategic ones (i.e. the big developments) need to be written first, so they can go into the regional development plans of unelected quangos like SEEDA and the regional assemblies. Never mind that we haven’t been consulted about them yet. Note that the ‘community involvement statement’ isn’t about asking us what we think: it’s about asking us how we’d like to be consulted. By the time they get around to asking us what we really think, Imperial’s planning application will have long been approved.

This is an undemocratic stitch-up, deliberately designed to make public consultation a cosmetic but ultimately irrelevant process which gives the veneer of accountability to a system of institutionalised bribery

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation commented back in 2002 that the government’s commitment to ‘community involvement’ in the planning process “might simply lead to a revised form of ‘corporatism’ at the local level, in which certain interests have a privileged place in the planning process, whereas others participate in a more consultative and limited manner”. Haven’t their fears been justified? A recent article in Inside Housing magazine (23 February) should ring alarm bells.

Ashford’s Future, the partnership between Ashford council, regional and central government bodies and the private sector, is developing a ‘major sites charter’ to speed up the delivery of new homes in the Ashford growth area, the article reads.

The charter, which is expected to be officially launched in the summer (in time for Imperial’s planning application?), is intended to “facilitate closer working between the private and public sectors on planning applications”. It will “put a heavy emphasis on the pre-application phase, in which public sector organisations and private developers will work together to iron out any problems…before the planning application is made”.

Martin Bacon (managing director of Ashford’s Future delivery board team) was quoted as saying: “in the pre-application phase, the aim is to do as much work on legal agreements as possible before the application comes in …if it’s gone through this process, the reasons for refusing the application will be minimal”.

This is an undemocratic stitch-up, deliberately designed to make public consultation a cosmetic but ultimately irrelevant process which gives the veneer of accountability to a system of institutionalised bribery (what else are ‘developer contributions to local infrastructure’?). Imperial will go through the motions of consultation with the people of Wye, spouting ‘constructive dialogue’, ‘meaningful engagement’, and other sweet nothings. Any hostility will be dismissed as Nimbyism. When the planning application is considered, Imperial can say — tick! — we’ve held a public consultation, so you don’t need to listen to any more objections: just give us the approval.

Roger Humber, described in the article as a ‘planning consultant’, but who may also be the chief executive of the House Builders’ Federation, said “the big issue is getting politicians to sign up to the spirit of this. Politicians may think what developers are trying to do is pre-empt their decision”.

Yes, that’s exactly what you would hope they’d think. But Ashford’s politicians seem to be only too happy to sign up.


About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome, Pieter Vos in Amsterdam, adaptions of the Sarah Lund stories in Copenhagen, and versions of Shakespeare worked for Audible.
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