Leading Article: All power to local planning committees

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The Independent Online
IT MAY look like a parish pump affair, but national issues are involved. In 1991 this newspaper helped to reveal that North Cornwall District Council had been defying agreed planning policy by allowing houses, bungalows and leisure developments to be built in unspoilt countryside. Many of these buildings were in areas of outstanding natural beauty or of special landscape value.

This was no small-scale affair: investigations by Cornwall County Council found that between January 1990 and September 1991, 84 planning applications, mostly for isolated rural dwellings, were approved even though they breached the county's structure plan.

Yesterday a Department of the Environment report concluded that many of the complaints were justified: planning permission had been granted 'on an inconsistent basis, contrary to national planning guidance and the (county) structure plan' - and, in several instances, to councillors or their relatives.

The best way of ensuring that planning applications are treated fairly is to measure them against a coherent plan. But not until 1991 did a new Planning and Compensation Act oblige district as well as county councils to draw up such plans. North Cornwall did not have one, an omission that is now being made good.

Few will dispute that planning decisions should be taken as close to the people affected as possible. Whereas county councils deal with strategic issues in their structure plans, it is at district level that applications for specific dwellings are most appropriately considered. If there is no district plan, consistency is - as the Government belatedly realised - hard to achieve.

One interesting question, raised yesterday by the Council for the Protection of Rural England, is whether third parties should have right of appeal against local planning decisions. At present, would-be developers can appeal against negative decisions, but only the Secretary of State can 'call in' rulings that favour the applicant.

For anyone who believes in local government, the answer should surely be no: it is precisely to take such decisions that local councillors are elected. The failures of North Cornwall's councillors do not justify a change that would create a blizzard of Nimbyish challenges to the decisions of planning committees across the country.