As many of you will be aware, Southgate District Civic Voice (SDCV) has been involved in a long-running campaign to encourage more meaningful community engagement on a controversial 17 storey redevelopment of Southgate Office Village. This campaign recently led to SDCV participating in the planning inquiry. This week, we heard the disappointing news that the appeal has been allowed and permission granted by the Planning Inspectorate.
Having followed the case from the start and provided facilitation support and guidance to SDCV at critical milestones, Civic Voice will be considering the decision carefully in the coming weeks. However, we have some immediate reflections that we would like to share.
This decision is relevant for all civic societies that care about where they live. We urge you all to read it. Particularly Paras. 41 and 42 which explain how consultation works (or not) in the current planning system.
Positive community leadership
Firstly, we must praise Southgate District Civic Voice, who in all our interactions with them, were positive and pragmatic about the redevelopment of this site, and did a huge amount of work as volunteers, who live, work and care about their local area. They tried to secure a better-designed development on the site, more reflective of the views of the local community. It is pleasing to see the Inspector recognise this, describing SDCV ‘as a group, they have clearly done a lot of valuable work in raising community awareness of the proposal.’
No doubt on social media, there will be the outside commentators that will pit this case as a NIMBY community v a developer. There always are – social media is no place for nuance, complexity, or planning judgement. Let us be clear, SDCV is not a NIMBY group. And in our years of experience at Civic Voice, we have come across a lot of community groups. We know what we’re talking about.
We saw that they actually tried to ‘take the heat’ out of the local debate on a controversial proposal, by organising a wider community conversation, which helped to explain the proposal and the planning process to people who are unfamiliar with the system. It also helped to dispel some of the myths that had started to circulate. Their leadership was inspiring and should be commended.
A low bar for community participation
The Inspector provides a good assessment of how the planning system works. Bluntly, he explains that the planning system does not allow popular decisions, decisions have to be made objectively against policies in the development plan (and other material considerations like national policies etc). Whilst we might like a developer to take on feedback, (and it might give them a swifter, easier planning process and a better outcome for the area) in a nutshell, this decision shows they don’t have to. There is a real tension there, particularly given the Government’s current ‘provably popular’ agenda, and it’s clear the Inspector sees the difficulties too – see Para. 42.
But what does a developer have to do in terms of consultation with the local community? Looking at this decision, not much. An attempt to engage with the public seems sufficient. That does not equate to meaningful community engagement. Despite warm words from Government over the last year for greater community engagement in planning, design codes etc, there seems to be nothing to compel developers to do this if they don’t want to.
It is also worth noting that, if the Government genuinely wants to encourage as many people as possible to participate in planning, the planning inquiry process is sure to put people off. It, rightly, exists to objectively test evidence, but the feeling of some participating in this inquiry is that it is an environment for professional officers and legal representatives. Why would a layperson want to participate in that?
Local Plan policies matter
Whether you agree with the Inspector’s final decision or not, it is clear that he has made a balanced and objective assessment of the proposal, against development plan policies. He has found the proposal to be policy compliant in many areas, and overall, in his view, it accords with the development plan, as a whole.
This shows the absolute importance of Local Plans, which are only going to gain prominence in future. If you have thought at times, Why is Civic Voice talking about Local Plans and a formal role for civic societies so much? We don’t get involved in that; they are too complicated. They don’t affect us.
This is why.
Local Plan policies matter. They guide how planning decisions are determined in your area.
Read the full appeal decision for Southgate Office Village here. Case reference: 3270885