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Flooding: A truly democratic system should allow for changes in Planning Legislation which will limit the damage which future flooding events have the power to cause

December 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Christmas will not be that merry for many who have been hit by flooding over recent days, weeks and what has now become months. Even today, news that the seemingly freak weather patterns that have haunted the UK in 2012 are staying put will be sending a shiver down the spines of all those who have closely witnessed or experienced the nightmare of being in a flood.

But is the perceived change in weather patterns the only factor we should be considering for future flood protection, or are the issues governing the severity of future flooding events far more deep seated, but with the potential for control?

In July 2007 and less than 3 months into my first Term as a Councillor, Tewkesbury Borough sat at what felt to many of us like the epicentre of a disastrous flood which demonstrated just how the impact of unforeseen water damage and a systematic failure to plan ahead can actually be and how its power can touch the lives of people who would never normally have reason to live in such fear.

Over a period of 36 hours, home after home in areas that had never been previously considered at risk of flooding became submersed by the affects of just 1 days deluge right across Gloucestershire. Whole Villages went under and for some home owners, many months of pain and torment lay ahead as driveway-based caravans suddenly became the only way to live, rather than the home from home that many choose to put on the road every Easter.

Perhaps the most significant consequence of this unpredictable event was the pollution of fresh drinking water supplies at the Mythe Water Treatment Works near Tewkesbury. Residents and businesses throughout Cheltenham, Gloucester and Tewkesbury were left without drinking water for over two weeks and stories of water thefts and fights at distribution points soon made many aware of just how quickly the civilised facade of our society can begin to break down when the basic elements of daily life that we take for granted are put at risk.

Daily deliveries of bottled water throughout the Ashchurch with Walton Cardiff Ward thereafter and dealing with many flood related issues on behalf of Residents to date has provided an invaluable insight into both the flooding events themselves and the way that the whole issue is handled by organisations as diverse as single-issue pressure groups, local Authorities, the Environment Agency and Central Government.

One of the most concerning elements of that experience has been the illumination of the way in which our centrally-derived Planning Laws and Policies simply do not allow people with local knowledge to exert meaningful levels of influence on building which many quietly agree does not consider either extreme levels of river or fluvial flooding or indeed the more concerning and unpredictable rain-based or pluvial flooding. It is such pluvial events as in 2007 that can present those extreme volumes of water in such short periods of time that  rivers and streams cease to exist leaving an out of control torrent to create its own destructive pathway to its gravity-borne destination.

Most worryingly still is the apparent lack of interest from authorities in these pluvial flood issues, with most prevention work concentrating on fluvial targets and where anything else may be ceremoniously rebuffed with the excuse that such events are so very, very rare and perhaps a only a ‘1 in a 100 year event’. When coupled with such arguable intransigence as the suggestion that built-up land on flood plain by its very nature ceases to be a flood plain – irrespective of where future floods might therefore go; you might see that even politicians like myself have good reason to be concerned for what the future may hold not only for those communities already experienced with floods, but also for those whose experiences may regrettably be still yet to come.

It is a frightening reality that Local Authorities with Planning functions are at this very moment in time formulating policies and projections on building development for the next 20 or 30 years. Development which when even only in existence upon paper is by that very existence arguably irreversible when Councils have effectively been coerced by Central Government to let the development genie out of the bottle, thereby granting the wishes of developers who now appear to be out of control. Developers who have pockets deep enough to challenge any refusal to grant planning permission by those Councils who may go against what may actually be official advice and challenge on the basis of what is right. Councils that may if not already, soon be on the verge of bankruptcy because of other centrally derived and disastrous ‘one size fits all’ policies that are serving nobody but their political architects.

In times when sustainability is a Government mantra, the unsustainable practice of what is in effect unbridled green-field development has to cease.

Housing need must not only be determined by local people at local level; that level of development must itself be based upon what any one local area can support and not upon what Westminster Officials decide as being a requirement.

As a Nation, we simply cannot concrete and tarmac over fields in order to sustain exploding population growth which itself is not contributing either the equivalent or more of what it then demands from a paymaster which continues to function well beyond its means.

Long term housing projections should cease, not only for being the gift that they have become for unscrupulous land-banking developers, but also because we simply do not know what lies in store for us as a population next year, let alone that which may be the case in 30 more.

It is local people and their representatives who should have both the power to decide upon what is and is not sustainable in building terms, along with the right to say no to developers without any fear of unseen bureaucrats undermining or reversing those very same decisions based upon an external and self-serving strategy.

Mankind may not have yet discovered the way to change the weather, but a democratic system should actually allow for changes in Legislation which will limit the amount of damage which future flooding events have the power to cause.

Local people should have the choice to protect their homes, businesses and even lives right now. Not when there is nothing left insurable.

Local Council decisons that really aren’t that local at all…

It was great to be present at the Annual Parish Meeting of Ashchurch Rural Parish Council within my Ward last night. But listening to questions raised within Public Participation reminded me of just how easy it can be for Councillors to take for granted what people actually know about the 3 different Tiers of Local Government and how equally easy it is for problems to arise when the expectation of the Electorate is simply left unmanaged.

As an Elected Member and Chair of Licensing at Tewkesbury Borough Council myself, I have witnessed first-hand how the frequent misunderstanding of where responsibility actually lies for the different functions of the tiers of Government can not only cause confusion, but create serious disappointment. More often than not voters can be left feeling that Councillors are completely out of touch – even at times when some of us are actually just as frustrated as the residents from within our Wards and feel obstructed by the views of bureaucrats that most of us will probably never meet.

Perhaps the area where this problem is most evident is within the quasi-judicial functions of Planning and Licensing.

The Planning process itself creates an almost continual air of controversy and mistrust; a matter not helped by the seemingly ubiquitous tales of corruption and ‘back-handers’ which seem to accompany a good percentage of conversations on the subject. Such tales of course would suggest that real decisions are actually made at Local Planning Committees, but the truth is not so straightforward, with Councillors and Officers (under delegated powers) simply interpreting Planning Law which has been set centrally by Officials and MP’s who may never have even been within a hundred miles of the location to which the Legislation will be used to apply.

Such a system is too broadly set to consider the very local factors which really should inform Planning decisions and this has been only too painfully apparent not only to Villages within my Ward, but to the wider Tewkesbury area since the July 2007 Flooding Event. This itself was perhaps the perfect example of why local people should be making locally informed and constructed decisions about local Planning issues, without the fear of overruling from the Secretary of State.

Licensing presents different, but nonetheless equally frustrating challenges which again restrict the ability of locally Elected Councillors to really deliver decisions and solutions which are based completely on that locality and the local evidence which it provides, rather than relying upon a centrally-led Legislative Policy which doesn’t provide anywhere near the flexibility and level of responsibility that those Elected to do the job should actually have.

The 2003 Licensing Act brought the Licensing Authority function within the fold of District Councils and away from Magistrates Courts. There is a lot to be said in favour of this specialist area being dealt with by trained Councillors on dedicated Sub-Committee panels which are of a similar format to a Magistrates Bench. However, the benefits are lost by the right of Appeal being automatically passed back to the Magistrates Court, where one might respectfully suggest that the trivialities of cases such as a Licensing Hours extension for a Town boozer or that of a Private Hire Drivers License for an unemployed jobseeker with 6 or more points on his or her Driving License will be seen to do no more than take up unnecessary time that could be spent more effectively elsewhere.

Real parity in both Licensing and Planning could be achieved by developing this type of system further to allow both functions to use the Sub-Committee panel system, but by also restricting and focussing the right of appeal so that the system cannot be left open to the potential misuse and manipulation of specialist advisors who know exactly what approach and to what level they need to take a case in order to achieve the result that their client wants, which may well not be in the interests of the wider population.

We have heard David Cameron talk a lot about Locality and giving power back to local people. I’m afraid that to date it has looked all too much to me like the age old story of taking back with one hand what the Government and Ministers such as Eric Pickles have given with the other and people just aren’t as stupid as such actions would suggest some Ministers think.

If the Coalition Government really wants to empower local people, there are many ways that they could do so and reform of the decision making processes and guidelines for both Planning and Licensing Law allowing local factors to be prioritised would be a significant start.

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