As a councillor in southeast England, Sue Bennett sees the disastrous impact of over-development, bad design and substandard
buildings every day. Here she talks about her experience of dealing with developers and residents. A developer’s dream, a resident’s nightmare. I seem to spend more time on planning issues than any other matter.
Inappropriate planning applications and disastrous planning policies have an impact on people’s lives and wellbeing. And local residents often have unrealistic expectations. Councillors have to tread a fine line if they are going to get a result that pleases everyone.
We must remember that developers want to keep councillors onside. They need the planning permission. What they don't need is a difficult councillor supporting local residents and making representations to the Planning Committee.
Successful developers – whether they be multinational or just small local builders – know they must take into account the opinion of the local community.
In the numerous planning applications that I have been involved with I have found they will compromise. But you must keep your nerve and push them to the limit. They are in it to make a profit, and a plot of land with no planning permission is practically worthless.
You must be able to judge when you have reached the limit with the developer, especially when it is an empty site that will eventually be built on.
Councillors need to speak with residents, engage with them and ask what they will accept.
I always refuse to compromise on backland or garden development because as far as I am concerned gardens should be sacrosanct. But 'brownfield' sites will eventually be developed, so councillors need to be able to influence the eventual outcome.
Everyone would agree that London and the southeast is overcrowded, so what is the answer? Because we are already overcrowded do we just build more and more because it doesn’t matter anymore?
Should we be building flats and calling them family accommodation? Has history taught us nothing? How can we subject children to life in vast, soulless housing estates?
I would suggest that tearing down the ‘slums’ as they were described – whole streets of Victorian houses, communities where people had lived for decades – was an unmitigated disaster.
If houses don’t have bathrooms or central heating, renovate them. Modernise them. Build on the back and if there is no room, convert the loft space. How much better to conserve and improve then to destroy!
All over England residents are fighting to save great swathes of Victorian terraces from the relentless march of so-called progress.
For centuries we built communities – from the Middle Ages when our ancestors lived in mediaeval villages to the time when the Victorians transformed our towns and cities. Millions of us still live with that model.
In one of his many books, David Attenborough wrote that London is a series of villages. Of course he is right. The Victorians built communities: they would never dream of building houses without local schools, churches, shops, pubs, employment, meeting rooms and parks.
And these days, where are the most popular places to live in Britain’s largest cities? They are the places with plenty of green space, local shops and a sense of community.
Millions of city dwellers, like me, sometimes dream of living in that idyllic cottage in the depths if the country. Then reality wakes us up and we realise we could never leave what we consider to be the most wonderful dynamic diverse city in the world.
So we do the next best thing and cleave to our familiar surroundings. We love to live in a ‘village’ atmosphere, our own space in a huge metropolis, our own community which we fiercely protect, our schools, our pubs, our parks – woe betide anyone who seeks to destroy them.
Large cities are often criticised for being cold and unfriendly, but only by those who don’t know or understand them. Most are melting pots where everyone is welcome and no-one is a stranger. Our ‘villages’ may have changed and diversified, but they are just as precious.
We need to get to a point where councillors and the council decide what development is needed in the borough, or ward, and invite developers to bid for the work.
It should be the locally-elected representatives – working with the cooperation of the local community – who identify any available land and tell developers what they want.
One thing I have learned as a councillor in London, is that people will come together as a community to fight perceived injustice. This should not be underestimated. Councils and councillors should be given the power to shape our communities and our towns.