Jock's Backroom Blog

Views from the Backroom, and the Classroom, at Oxford Brookes University

Called in

Posted by Jock Coats on March 3rd, 2010

Rumour reaches me that our big planning application for the new library and teaching building has been, as it is termed, “called in” so that the decision will be made once again by all 48 city councillors. So the decision of the Strategic Development Control Committee, whom council elect to make large planning decision on their behalf, is for the second time being challenged and could yet be overturned and the application refused permission.

I have to admit that my own record on this sort of thing is hardly blemish-free – it was I who arranged for the decision in 2000 to allow the Oxford International Centre for Islamic Studies the go ahead to build on Marston Road reopened in full council after even full council had approved it narrowly on the very tenuous grounds that because we had had council elections in between and the composition of the council had changed it was potentially a material difference since the decision had been made! My argument was rejected, thankfully, and although I would probably still have preferred for the Islamic Centre not to have marked the start of development encroaching down the green spaces on the Marston Rd that divide the city from the suburb, given the often rather bleak look of what we have built opposite, I do rather find the Islamic Centre architecture a welcome break from 21st century halls of residence!

However, having been involved in the other side of planning now, i.e. from the applicant’s point of view, both with Oxfordshire Community Land Trusts and more recently obviously with this Brookes application, I am a reformed character in that respect. As a memorandum put out by the city council’s head of planning Michael Crofton-Briggs a couple of years later stated (at the time trying to remind councillors that appeals could be expensive and losing an appeal even more so) the principle of British planning law is that by default property owners should be allowed to do what they want on their property, unless there are well grounded public policy reasons why not.

Planning officers – the professionals whom the council appoints to be the “expert witness” if you like applying the local plan and local development framework to test each application and to recommend decisions to councillors – have twice now recommended approval for the building. The Strategic Development Control Committee has twice now followed the officers’ recommendations and approved the application – the last time by the narrowest possible majority in a 12 person committee – 7 votes to 5 – and this time somewhat more convincingly at 9 votes to 3. And both applications it seems will now end up being decided by the whole council.

It seems to me that the way this process works actually turns on its head that fundamental planning principle of allowing property owners to do what they want with their property by default, and implies what is the reality, that councillors feel that they have a right to hold something up until the applicant satisfies them. But I know only too well now what this sort of politicking costs. We are strong enough to be able to bear such costs, but when the applicant is someone, say a small developer, engaged on his main business activity, putting everything on hold, sometimes for years if a protracted appeals process ensues, can be enough to break such a business, which is an appalling price to pay for lay-councillors deciding to play a little politics with that developer’s property.

Development control is supposed to be a “quasi-judicial” process. Whilst justice demands rightly that objectors have their opportunity to comment and campaign against something, I do wonder whether ultimately the correct people to make the end decision, to balance, for example, the essentially non-voting applicant – “Oxford Brookes University” per se, does not have a vote in local elections and a very large proportion of our students do not vote (as students tend not to anywhere) – whereas the objectors are people who do have a vote and whose votes councillors must gain or retain when they are up for election.

So the incentives, I’ll say no more than that, are for councillors to side with the voters, and the most vocal of them at that, and not with applicants. It should be borne in mind too that their obligation is to all their constituents and not just the most vocal and erudite and some of these councillors have a lot of students in their ward who may not have voted for anyone but are still entitled to their councillors’ consideration.

Maybe it’s time that all planning decisions were handled by some kind of dispassionate professional service rigourously applying law and policy in a properly judicial setting.

Let us just hope that this time, sense will win out, and those who understand the contribution that Brookes makes to the local economy (which our city council has endorsed previously as part of the South East Plan which is where they should have raised objections if they wanted to I’d suggest) and that jeopardising the redevelopment of our physical facilities to better reflect our academic reputation, will have a majority in full council and that we do not need to go through the tortuous process of an appeal.

Constructions costs are now back on the rise. The longer gaining permission takes the more expensive, potentially, the development becomes, and the more of a diversion of resources that will mean from front line teaching, learning, research and student experience activities.