Thursday, 23 April 2009

A Question of Planning

Wednesday night was the occasion of our regular Ward Forum - a meeting where community councils and members of the public can come along and ask questions - both lodged in advance and on the night - and usually each of these has a theme. Last night's was the perenninal issue of Planning - probably the most controversial and least understood of all matters that councils deal with. And as luck would have it, it was my turn to chair the meeting. It was no surprise that fifty people turned up - some with good questions and others with questions that revealed just how big the gulf was between what people think about planning and what the reality is. Head of Planning for Highland Council, Richard Hartland, explained the changes in planning law that are coming in this year, with disarming honesty and pulling no punches - where he felt that the Scottish Government had got it wrong, he said so, and where he felt that Highland Council could do things better, he said so, too. This was most refreshing, and I hope it was appreciated. Don McKee, Head of Planning for the Cairngorms National Park Authority added his perspective on the changes as to how the Park would handle applications. Then it was time for the questions.... Some folk think that, because councillors who are going to determine a planning application cannot comment on the merits or otherwise of an application until the day it's determined (we have to be able to evidence that we haven't 'pre-judged' an application before all the details are presented to us) that means they can't talk to us about an application, put their point of view, or ask us for advice about how to go about putting forward their viewpoint. This is totally wrong and we were able, I hope, to get across the message that councillors are always happy to listen to whatever anyone has to say - but also to make it clear that anyone means anyone - developers included! There were some folk present with definite agenda about one live planning issue or another and one who wanted to go off track and use the meeting as a vehicle for criticising his community council. I had to be firm at times - and certainly to put a stop to that line of statement - but I was conscious all the time of the need to maintain a balance between allowing people the chance to say what they wanted to, and keeping control of the meeting. By the end, I felt pretty exhausted by the process, but I kept the meeting to time and there were no complaints, so I hope I got it more or less right. The really good thing, though, is that enough people out there, who care about where they live, turned out to participate. We must never forget that planning affects people's lives and the places where they live more directly, and more permanently than anything else - a hole in the road is just a hole - and sometime it gets fixed (unless you live in Salford), but a concrete carbuncle in front of your house is there, for all practical purposes, for ever. It's the responsibility to strike the right balance that we must not lose sight of.

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