Public meeting to discuss Manchester City Council’s planning process saw accusations of developers ‘watering down’ councillors’ powers and there being a ‘lack of accountability’ in decisions made during the planning process.
Frustration and disillusionment were the primary feelings expressed as Labour Piccadilly ward councillors held a meeting with local residents and activists to discuss ways to improve Manchester City Council’s urban planning process.
Local residents and activists joined the councillors in the Northern Quarter’s Craft and Design Centre, on Thursday 1 August, to vent their feelings at the way planning had been repeatedly permitted against their wishes. Many expressed dismay at the approval of a plan to build Shudehill Tower on Soap Street, which the Planning Committee passed eight votes to five, on 27 June.
Some attending the meeting were concerned that the public were being deliberately kept in the dark about planning proposals in the Northern Quarter. One local businesswoman said she had the “impression that [the councillors] didn’t want people to know” what planning proposals had been submitted to the council.
Richard Paul Long, a member of the Friends of Angel Meadows campaign group, said there was a total “lack of accountability” when it came to the planning process in Manchester.
Another resident told the meeting that if developers did hold public consultations these would be held at inconvenient times during the day, that statements from consultations weren’t followed up and that no one in the council was taking responsibility for failures to veto planning applications which concerned locals.
Greg Ashton, trustee of New Leaf, a charity committed to greening Manchester’s public urban spaces, talked about councillors’ powers being “watered down” by developers. He went on to say that Councillors were “supposed to represent the rights of the communities,” but increasingly they were being subverted by “repeated resubmissions” made by developers if their proposals were rejected initially.
Councillors Adele Douglas and Jon-Connor Lyons, who represent Piccadilly ward, were joined by Angeliki Stogia, who is executive for Environment, Planning and Transport on Manchester City Council, to outline the structural issues surrounding the city’s planning processes which precluded public input.
According to Douglas, there is “no legal obligation for developers to consult the public” in the pre-application phase of development planning. Where developers do decide to consult the public, Douglas explained, this takes the form of a notification that a development is going ahead regardless of what people think, rather than a negotiation with the local community.
Councillors Douglas and Stogia described how their powers were being watered down by developers. They highlighted the fact that councillors are powerless to stop Manchester City Council’s Planning Committee approving an application once it has been submitted, because by this point application has gone through the Local Planning Authority, which advises councillors sitting on the Planning Committee to approve or reject a development proposal.
There are fifteen councillors on the committee representing wards from all over Greater Manchester and most of them follow the advice of the Local Planning Authority. This means that the three Piccadilly ward councillors are outnumbered. This had been the case when the committee approved plans for the Shudehill Tower, the councillors said.
Attendees of the meeting then tried to come up with solutions to the issue of “antidemocratic planning processes”. Douglas said a solution could be to consult with the public more in the pre-application phase of planning, so the Planning Committee had a better picture of what impact a proposed development would have on the local community.
Developing on this suggestion, one resident told the meeting that a way to empower locals would be to ensure that consultation documents sent out by developers included images of the proposed development once it had been completed and birds-eye satellite images of the site. Visualising developments in this way would help locals express what they did not like about a development.
A general feeling of disenfranchisement and disillusionment lingered throughout the meeting. Many at the meeting shared Ashton’s concerns that councillors powers were being “watered down” and that the real power lay with the developers. It was also clear coming out of this meeting that there was a lot of disagreement within the Manchester Labour Party on planning policy.
So for the foreseeable future the planning process will proceed as usual as the property development boom continues across the city. But this meeting has brought the planning process into the public debate, and it is sure to be a topic that is returned to soon with the amount of development occurring in the city.
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