Because very large sums of money can depend on a planning approval, there can be a temptation to solve problems by way of backhanders to corrupt councillors on planning committees. But what happens in the case of a city council like Manchester, which is squeaky clean, where no corruption has ever been alleged and where those on the planning committee honestly believe that what they are deciding is best for the people they represent?
Answer: While very many decisions cannot be faulted, some are made out of paternalism – that is, the conviction that the committee is doing what is best for the interests of the community, even if there are members of the community who point out, stridently, that it is not what they want. Take, for example, the application to build a supermarket at the junction of Stockport Road and Stanley Grove in my constituency, an application that has been before Manchester council for months, and which has been twice deferred at my request.
There is no doubt that the site is an eyesore.
It was cleared years ago by the council in advance of a planned widening of Stockport Road, a project that the council subsequently abandoned. Unfortunately, by then many shops had been demolished and the ground had been cleared. The site is a wasteland on which a used-car lot has now, unofficially, taken root.
Local residents have been consulted about this site by community groups, and the overwhelming response was that the site should be used for community purposes. But the council does not have money for a community-based project. On the other hand, the development company does have money to build a supermarket, and that would neatly fill an unsightly space.
Well, you might say, that is a tidy solution to a problem of untidiness. What is wrong with it?
One answer is that there is a small supermarket adjacent to the site, and another – much larger – across the road from it, near a popular open-air market. There is also the fact that this is a thriving, lively area full of small local shops, some of whose owners feel that yet another supermarket would damage their trade.
The city council favours a solution because it is neat and tidy, but real life is seldom neat and tidy at all
Moreover, in an area of below-average incomes, car ownership is also below average, and most customers walk to the shops. The council says that additional car-parking facilities, to be provided with the proposed supermarket, would ease access for customers at the small shops. But what they need is not lots more long-term parking, which is available at the other supermarket and on other nearby sites, but facilities for those who just need to park for 10 minutes while making a quick purchase.
On the other hand, Stockport Road at this point is so busy (with that road-widening project never accomplished) that through-traffic is often clogged – and a supermarket, with car-parking facilities as a selling-point, would produce even heavier traffic flows. The powers-that-be ask why the shopkeepers have not objected to the planning application. One answer is that the shopkeepers may believe that such objections are pointless. Another may be that they know that their member of parliament and their ward councillors are opposed to the project, and that should be enough.
I do not want to be a bore about this specific planning application. I cite it as an example – I know of several more – in which the city council favours a solution because it is neat and tidy, but real life is seldom neat and tidy at all.
Years ago, dissatisfied with other planning decisions, I advocated the establishment of the right to appeal against planning approvals, just as there is at present a right to appeal against planning refusals. It might be argued that such a right might make the planning process even more costly than it is now. On the other hand, it might give a much-needed voice to despondent inertia – and provide an outside arbiter to consider the arguments of the paternalistic planners.
Gerald Kaufman is MP for Manchester Gorton and chairman of the culture, media and sport select committee.