“There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit.”
This is a quote from the Ayn Rand novel, Atlas Shrugged. The book describes a failing country, with businesses struggling under increasing legislation and regulations, with ever falling productivity. All of which sounds rather familiar. However, that’s not the point of this article.
I came across it as I was looking for quotes on compromise and this was typical of the feeling. Our political world tends to reject compromise these days too. Left and Right. Right and Wrong. In or Out. Maybe even Good versus Evil. The tabloids love a conflict and I guess that by extension we must too. But, well, it’s not really working, is it?
After all, it’s very easy to play to the crowd and cry “no surrender” and make yourself look good and strong – but it’s not a real victory.
A real victory, to my mind at least, is actually achieving something tangible. Society does not evolve by argument. Society evolves by the agreement at the end of the argument, a resolution and, yes, an inevitable compromise.
And so to my segue into development; we spend a lot of time arguing about planning, but seemingly little time finding meaningful consensus, and this needs fixing. Solutions are hard to come by when there is such huge disagreement about what the problems even are.
In a nutshell the planning system is a mix of democracy in action, interspersed with the application of planning law. In theory, the planning law sets the boundaries for any major application and then the democratic process ensures the rules are being applied in a suitable fashion.
When a developer identifies a possible site, planning law tells them what may be possible, and what rules and regulations they must satisfy to obtain the approval they are looking for. These laws are set democratically, and the local plans that each area agrees should be a reflection of that area’s requirements, as set by local referendum.
Developers then present their initial plans and get feedback at a public presentation. So far, so democratic. Locals tell the developers what they want to see and what they don’t want to see.
These aspirations are important, but inevitably, some are simply impossible to satisfy. Further, the locals who go along to these presentations are frequently the ones who want no development at all. Ever.
At this point developers then work with their consultants to try to arrive at an application that they believe takes into account as much of the local feeling as possible and complies with planning law and policy.
And there is a lot. Height, massing and design is just the start. There are environmental considerations, climatic, rights of light, use of materials, energy efficiency, transport and more.
We have a small application in Findon that’s been circulating between our consultants for months. Every small change requires everyone else to sign off on it and there is a lot of compromise throughout this process. And yet, despite these compromises it is all but impossible to design a scheme that satisfies every single planning requirement fully.
Sometimes that’s because certain requirements clash. Sometimes it is simply because a site is perfect for development, apart from one thing – say a protected tree that needs removing, or an ability to provide exactly the right ratio of parking spaces to houses.
Planning officers understand this – they know it’s not possible to comply with everything 100 per cent most of the time and, once submitted, they work with developers to progress the application to, hopefully, a final submission that they can support.
That involves more compromise, on both sides. Those applications that fail to make the standard result in officers recommending refusal. Back to the drawing board.
So far, this system makes sense doesn’t it? Democratically set rules that must be followed, with compromises from both sides (mainly developers I would say) where rules are unclear or clash, and where the goal is to ensure that high standards are met. I’m not saying the system is without problems, but the basic guiding principle is a good one.
This is where the role of the planning committee comes in. Once a major scheme gets in front of them, they must make the decision to approve or not as a final check that the officers have ensured the scheme is compliant.
But as a democratically elected body, they are also there to represent the views of their constituents. It’s not easy being the servant of two masters – national planning law and local democracy are not easy bedfellows.
When planning law is satisfied and professionally qualified council officers are telling you so, how do you deal with that local, vocal minority who tells you to refuse the application or they’ll make sure you never get elected again?
At the moment, there are two options – refuse the plans and wait to lose at appeal, blaming someone else, or stare down the vocal minority and approve as the rules say they must.
Time and again it’s the former, adding time and cost to applications, costing public and private money and reducing the number of houses delivered as a result – during a housing crisis. Worse, as I’ve pointed out before, the biggest loser, time and again, is the provision of social housing.
What’s the solution? Compromise, of course. In the first instance, members of these committees should be more involved in the process leading up to the meeting. They need to understand what compromises were sought and obtained before it reached them. I think they might be surprised.
Worthing have pre-committee meetings to understand the applications through the process. Adur and Brighton and Hove do not. They should revise that policy if they want to make progress.
Secondly, there should be more flexibility to actually allow members to talk and negotiate with developers directly – at the moment this isn’t possible and committees change their minds too frequently.
Yes, if an application is refused, developers have reasons for refusal that they can seek to overcome but all too often they come back and find the goalposts have been moved, sometimes rather dishonestly.
The way forward is meaningful, honest negotiation and compromise. Let’s sit round a table, let’s talk, let’s try to find common ground. Right now there’s too much us and them and stalemate, again and again. Let’s change that.
Ed Deedman is a director of Cayuga Homes.