There is probably an air of relief in our council’s planning department at the moment – even a smile on their faces. How come? A new Planning Court will be launched this summer to fast-track disputes over major developments through the legal system.
According to Cllr Boterill and his developer chums, this can only be a good thing. He says, “It can be incredibly frustrating to see significant infrastructure and development schemes that promise new jobs, homes, business opportunities and community benefits held up by unwarranted or vexatious challenges.”
However, the problem is, what the council sees as an unwarranted challenge, the challenger sees as a legitimate and democratic right to hold the executive to account. Unfortunately, any kind of judicial fast-track process inevitably favours the developers and the council since pressure groups objecting to new developments can rarely afford the legal costs of taking such an action to a Judicial Review.
Reports I have read suggest the new measures will mean only those with a financial interest in a case can bring a challenge, which would put an end to challenges by BRA and other campaigners acting in the public interest.
So, unlike Cllr Botterill, I have reservations about restricting Judicial Reviews since these are a crucial democratic safeguard against abuses of power or process. They aren’t used that much by communities and campaign groups anyway. They are costly, time consuming and stressful. But often they are the only way to get justice by getting bad developments dropped or at least significantly improved.
I welcome more planning expertise in the courts, as well as quicker procedures, but these should not come at the expense of local communities losing the right to challenge developers and the Council’s planning decisions.
Councils should recognize that community interest is as important as a developer’s. And when BRA and other organizations like us seek to challenge what we consider to be bad decisions, it is so we can protect our area for future generations, not because we’re against a developer’s financial interest.