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When the mobs are demagogues

Public participation is a buzzword these days, but in the case of the planning process it does more harm than good

I think it is a great pity that the public was ever allowed to make its feelings heard on planning matters, and I hold this opinion for two good reasons:

1. Councillors are elected to represent public opinion. If the public is to press its opinion directly, then why bother with councillors - which could be one reason for the deplorable apathy in local elections?

2. Public opinion is invariably negative. The 'hang 'em-high' brigade is always the first from the starting block and comes out in force. Nobody ever speaks in favour of any proposal. This approach fits in beautifully with English Heritage, whose pinnacle of ambition with any project always seems to be 'freeze it as it is!'

I am also sorry to say, after 40 years' experience, that the better and the more imaginative a proposal is, the more bitter will be the objections. And those who have only been in the district a couple of weeks are always the most active and vociferous in their opposition.

The mob is mindless, bullying and utterly predictable in its opposition, and does not hesitate to extend its attacks to those it considers its opponents. Somehow, the lawyer who takes on the defence of some appaling criminal is never criticised for accepting the brief. This is not the case with the architect, whose job it is to express his client's wishes in as beautiful a manner as possible - somehow in these circumstances the architect is considered fair game for public attack and abuse.

The mob lies as well as bullies - as a matter of course. Those who recently moved in to a new housing estate in my home valley must surely have noticed that the service road continued forward into the next field, itself scheduled for development on the old town map. Any moderately intelligent person would note those two facts and conclude that the next field was likely to be built on in the near future.

When we then put in a perfectly normal and proper application for the field on behalf of the local farmer, the new residents reacted one and all with expressions of utter outrage that any such evil and diabolical a proposal could be contemplated - and I was condemned for preparing the application!

One sees through it of course - they know, every one of them, what is proposed under development legislation. But they also know that if they kick up enough of a fuss then their councillors will get cold feet, start to worry about re-election and decide it is better to give the mob its way, and so they can stop any proposal. As happened in the above case.

Our local metropolitan council was reprimanded and fined in two planning appeals recently, because it had gone against its own planning policy (and its officers' advice) in order to placate the usual well-organised campaign of opposition. Note also that planning inquiries into major new projects - motorways or power stations for instance - are now impossible, because the mob organisers have found how to destroy the process.

But I cannot understand why nobody is ever in favour of anything? Is the world so perfect that all change must be for the worse? Is nobody capable of creating beauty any more?

Public participation is far less effective in other fields. Our local nhs board wishes to put all its maternity services into the new public- finance initiative (pfi) hospital in Halifax and take such services away from the giant 1970s Huddersfield Royal Infirmary. Opinion polls run 97 per cent against this proposal; doctors and nurses oppose it; some make the reasonable suggestion that normal services should be retained at both sites, with a centre of excellence at one or the other for the tiny percentage which needs it (with ambulance transport and medical attention for the 16km or so journey between), but that will not do for our nhs masters who clearly decided what they were going to do several years ago and have no intention of changing in any way. There were numerous public consultations, and unanimous opposition was expressed at all of them, but the nhs takes no notice whatsoever. Why should it? It clearly knows what is best for the public, and the public must jolly well be grateful for what its provide. Which in this instance ignores the question of who is paying for this service.

These examples represent two extremes, and I find the contrast between them very curious. It leads me to wonder which of the two positions one might prefer - mob rule or rule by bureaucracy?

I have a tiny story with which to finish my argument. It concerns a derelict corner of land in a suburban setting: there is contamination by landfill gas, which has been a problem for years. We applied for planning consent to build a veterinary surgery on the site. After a month, we received a call from a very shocked planning officer: 'It is most unusual,' he said, 'there has not been one letter of objection!' So I asked him whether, apart from special cases like the applicant's mother, he had ever received a letter that was in favour of any proposal? He (as the longest-serving officer of the department) said that he had not. Not a single one. Not ever.

Arthur Quarmby is an architect in Huddersfield

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