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‘The devil is in the detail’

Peter Gillson | Published:

AS PROMISED in my last column I have had a chance to read the planning requete, but before looking at it, I have to say I have found some of the general comments in the media about Planning a little distasteful. Some have been ‘pointing the finger’ and blaming the staff. Comments like ‘a rogue planner being employed’ are less than helpful.

Allowing neighbours to appeal planning decisions will slow down the planning process, particularly in the case of developments like the data park in St Sampson's, which has between 80 and 100 properties within 50 metres of it. (24917632)

As a deputy, and specifically as part of the team that developed the Strategic Land Use Plan, I came in to contact with planning staff, who I always found to be very professional.

When referring to the staff, thought should be given to two things.

Firstly, the planners live in Guernsey. To listen to some deputies, you would be forgiven for thinking that they have the monopoly on loving Guernsey. Well this may be news – all of the planners I worked with also love the island. It is their home and they have no interest in ruining it.

Secondly, they are operating within a legal and policy framework that the deputies have approved.

The planning policy framework does give some discretion in the way the policies can be interpreted, so why are they being interpreted in a way which has caused so much uproar?

It comes down to leadership – leadership from the Development & Planning Authority.

It’s not a perfect analogy, but you will get my drift if you compare the planning process to an orchestra. In an orchestra, the individual musicians use their skill and experience to play their instruments, but under the guidance of the conductor. It’s the conductor who not only ensures everybody is in time, but sets the ‘atmosphere’ for the interpretation of the music.

The DPA committee should have showed similar leadership in the planning process. Indications are that this was lacking. If so, it is wrong to blame the hard-working staff.

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The requete makes it clear there is significant political dissatisfaction with the planning process. Some of the feeling is no doubt responding to not-in-my-backyard complaints, but it goes deeper than that. As shown by the election last month and the wording of the requete, there seems a level of dissatisfaction with the DPA itself.

So how did this come to pass and where does responsibility lie?

Clearly the operation of the DPA lay with its political members and the leadership of the former president, Deputy Gollop.

Quite frankly, I don’t know what the States were thinking when they elected him as president of the DPA.

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Criticising Deputy Gollop is a little like kicking a puppy, because he is a nice, honest person who has many good attributes. However, leading a committee is not one of them and he should never have stood for, nor been elected to that position.

While he has to accept some responsibility, so does the States as a whole for putting him in there.

The majority of the requete calls for reviews of aspects of the planning regime, but there are a couple of proposals that are worth considering in detail.

The first of those is proposition five: to introduce third-party appeals for anybody living within 50 metres of a development. On the face of it, a reasonable suggestion – after all, the applicant can appeal a planning decision, so why not neighbours?

Although it seems reasonable, one concern is that it will lead primarily to nimby appeals, which will just tie up staff time, and therefore the general planning process.

For instance, the data park in St Sampson’s has between 80 and 100 properties within 50 metres of it. Since all occupiers would be able to make an appeal, could each adult in a property make an individual appeal? If so, the number could double.

I am sure this will be approved and look forward to the policy letter explaining just how such a system would work. I suspect the devil will be in the detail.

The part of the requete I take most issue with is the suggestion to protect greenfield sites in the local centres. Once again, it seems reasonable to give priority to brown-field sites rather than building on fields. Reasonable, until you consider why the local centres were created.

The parameters of the current regime were established after the long ‘Guernsey Tomorrow’ consultation process started in 2009, which identified dissatisfaction with the old planning system. Under the old Rural Area Plan, no new building was allowed in the Rural Area other than replacing or converting existing buildings. This protected the rural area and ensured the majority of new housing was in St Sampson’s and St Peter Port.

That resulted in two concerns. Firstly, an ever-increasing density of housing in the Urban Area, especially St Sampson’s, where there was growing unease about the infrastructure’s limitations.

The second was that housing in the Rural Area was generally more expensive, with a lack of new affordable homes for those who had been brought up in those parishes and wished to remain there.

The compromise solution was the creation of ‘local centres’, within which limited housing could be built to reduce the pressure of new housing in the north, while also increasing housing stock in the Rural Area.

The very nature of these locations is that they tend to be greenfield sites, so anything that creates a blanket protection for greenfield sites will in effect be bringing back the rural/urban split which was so disliked and unfair.

Disappointingly, the one thing missing from the requete is a call for an infrastructure plan to be produced. This is a key pillar of the whole planning process that has never been created, but should have been. Many of the concerns expressed by St Sampson’s residents would be addressed if such a plan existed.

I am concerned that the requete seems like a strategic review but is actually the result of nimbyism, focusing on the ‘symptoms’ rather than the real ‘illness’. As such, it may not get the results people are hoping for. It may see a return to the urban/rural area split – which might be what some deputies actually want.

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