I was in Stokenchurch on Friday afternoon to attend a public meeting called by Stokenchurch Parish Council to discuss plans by Wycombe District Council to locate two additional travellers’ sites in the village. Longburrow Hall was packed. I reckon that well over a hundred people were there, many of whom had taken time off work to be present.
It was clear that the overwhelming majority of people at the meeting had no animus against the long established gypsy and traveller families who already live in Stokenchurch. What they fear was that the designation of the two sites, both of which are in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and one of which is also in green belt land, and would open the way for significant numbers of outsiders with no previous connection to the local community. People are understandably upset when their own planning applications for modest extensions or even for garden buildings have been turned down on the grounds that green belt must be protected but then find out is that an exception is being made to the rules when it comes to travellers’ sites. Similarly, my judgement is that people are very willing to accept that their local district council must plan for the future housing needs of gypsies and travellers with connections to the Wycombe area, just as they need to plan for the needs of everybody else. What irks is the fact that the proposals now on the table have been prompted not by the local council’s own assessment of what is needed but by the need to meet a central government target. The government has not only made an assessment of Wycombe’s needs but then added an extra element to represent what it considers to be Wycombe’s share of the “regional” needs of South East England as a whole.
As I reflected on what was said at this meeting, it seemed to me that the implications of the debate went a lot wider than this particular argument about travellers’ sites. People don’t feel that they have ownership of the planning system and yet the planning system is supposed to operate to give local people a real say in striking a balance between development and conservation in the places where they live. I am convinced that the planning system, like so much else in our society, has become far too centralised. I think that governments of both parties have been guilty but there is no doubt that centralisation has accelerated during the last dozen years.
We need a different approach. A good start would be to scrap altogether the cumbersome, remote and undemocratic tier of regional planning and return housing and planning powers to elected local authorities. We should then aim to put in place a bottom-up system of planning in which district councils have to consult with people at parish and neighbourhood level. The final local plan should represent the aspirations of local people. It should be a policy in the framing of which local residents feel that they have been allowed a genuine say.
Of course there will be national infrastructure projects where it will have to be Parliament, rather than a host of different local authorities, which takes responsibility for the decision. But such cases are rare. We need to reform our planning system to make it much more responsive to local opinion and local need.