The White Paper suggests in paragraph 2.48, under stage 4, that people’s right to be heard in person [for local plans] will be changed. The paper states that inspectors will now have discretion as to what form an objector’s representations might take. Under paragraph 2.53, which is an alternative option to the one set out in paragraph 2.48, the paper goes even further and suggests any form of ‘right to be heard’ might be removed . The right to be heard at Section 20 of the 2004 Planning Act is the only clear civil right that exists in the planning process for the individual citizen. The right includes the important phrase ‘in person’ in order to allow an individual to appear in front of an inspector and exercise other opportunities to cross examine witnesses. So, the opportunity to appear at a public inquiry has been replaced with the opportunity for an inspector to have a telephone conversation with you, or ask for further written comments, if they choose to do so. This is not an increase in democratisation.
Prior to the 2004 Act there was a right to be heard in person only for local plans and CPO, not for structure plans. That was the distinction between public inquiries and Examinations in Public. The 2004 act reforms were intended to introduce EiPs for local plans. Under pressure in parliment Lord Falconer introduced section 20 – its has failed.
There is nothing about representative democracy that implies a right to be heard. Indeed they are designed to reduce and eliminate the right to be heard so that decisions can be made in a reasonable time and debated by a reasonable number of people. If you want a say you right to your MP or belong to a lobby group who lobbies them directly. There are other models of democracy – such as direct democracy where there is a right to be heard. They work well for neighborhood plans and local plans scoping. These do not scale well for major decisions where 1000s of people demand a say. Rather than EiPs opening and closing in a week they can now sometimes last years (though there are many reasons for this).
So all this talk of loss of democracy – lets call a spade a spade – is bullshit. If your model of democracy is representative democracy its more democratisation by ensuring the will of the people on strategic decisions – such as building more housing – are implemented against the attempts to block those decisions by a wealthy minority opposing development and using legal blocking tactics. Planning reform must mean local plan EiPs taking weeks not years. Its a ‘measly right’ as it rarely changes anything and is a weak means of purely negative engagement. That must mean reform so that they become examinations by questioning panels as they were originally designed for. Listening to the dozens of people raising exactly the same point made 1,000s of times in written representations. How is that democracy?