Sending out the wrong signals to those who already think the system is rigged, by Graeme Bell

“Jenrick’s made our job harder,” said Dave. “Those that think planning is rigged, that councillors are on the make, now have the top man sending all the wrong messages. He has to go.”

Socially distanced, the three young planners were settling down at their booked table, waiting for drinks, pleased to be back in each other’s company. Workmates in development management, this was their first meeting since lockdown.

Of course, there had been chats. FaceTime and Zoom had allowed a peek into their private lives that a water cooler moment never could. Indeed, they even had to perform a circuit with their laptop so that each could view “their office”. No well-ordered bookshelves, more how normal people live.

The pints arrived from the bar and the face masks were removed. Lisa, with her neat mask in scrubs blue, could not help remarking that Josh looked like a bandit in his black number. “You’ll have to wear that when you next go on site for an enforcement action,” she quipped.

Dave, meanwhile, struggled out of his face mask, bought pre-pandemic for when he was bringing down a ceiling, the twin charcoal filters making him look like a Star Wars stormtrooper.

“I remember when the chief had to speak to the chairman about the gasworks site approval,” said Josh. “After committee ended, the chair met the applicant in the lobby where he was spotted by some of the protestors. What a signal to send!”

Dave nodded and added: “Yes, but is it worse than the time members went to the back to meet the protestors after the Beechwood housing scheme was refused against our recommendation? So much for weighing up the planning issues on the day!

“The agents took a photo, which nearly ended in a fight. The chief struggled to come up with a convincing reason for refusal and I think we’ll get clobbered for costs on appeal.”

Lisa, who had joined the council a year before the others and had seen a little more of life, gave a wistful look. “Well, we’re not going to stop it,” she said. “Planning committee is one of the few opportunities councillors have to perform in public and they get carried away by the drama. Ploughing through reports, sitting in meetings and having to respond to the endless emails must be soul-destroying. Where else on council business can they get that adrenalin fix? I think Jenrick just thought, ‘you know what, I’m the secretary of state and I can do this’.”

Dave and Josh nodded, took a long drink and signalled for another round. The waiter arrived and asked breezily from behind his face screen how the lockdown had been for them.

“Well, we all work for the council so we’ve been working throughout from home,” said Josh.

“Lucky you,” said the waiter.

“This is my first week back from furlough and it’s touch and go whether this place will keep going. If not, there’s 20 of us who’ll be out on the streets. What do you do for the council?” “Town planning,” Dave replied. “Well, you’re the people we need to speak to, because the owner has talked about shutting the pub and turning this place into apartments. What can you do to stop that?” asked the waiter.

The three friends looked at each other and wondered where to start. Lisa took her cue from the discussion. “You need to speak to your local councillor. And write to your MP. Or, better still, start a campaign and get the local paper involved. I’m afraid planning is having its teeth taken out one by one.”

“That’s awful,” said the waiter, “and short-sighted.”

“You said it,” the three friends replied, almost in unison.

Graeme Bell OBE is a past president of the Planning Officers Society

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