Desperately Seeking Sense: Campaigning on Planning in the short and long term

Readers of the last newsletter will recall Sheffield FoE’s support for residents in Heeley, Meersbrook and Nether Edge, in their campaign against the construction of a new Morrisons’ store on the former Tyzaks site, opposite Heeley Baths.  They may also remember the groups’ campaign to get national FoE to pay more attention to planning issues. In an update on both campaigns, Liz Sharp links the problems of local campaigning to the wider need for reform of the planning system.

You can see the old Tyzaks site from the railway. A large area of concreted derelict land, just over a mile from the city centre. This, the last remaining large tract of derelict industrial land to the south of Sheffield, is currently threatened with development as yet another retail food superstore. To me, the case against the development is compelling.  Superstores are designed for bulk purchasing of goods; their existence is intertwined with the expansion of a car culture which we are meant to be trying to resist. Superstores threaten small local shops, shops which are vital to the quality of life of the less affluent members of society.   Moreover, the site is large and flat. While they may not be the most profitable uses, there is nowhere comparable in southern Sheffield where light industry or a large housing development could be located.  These types of developments would bring people and prosperity to the area; a superstore will just bring traffic, pollution and blight.

Sounds simple doesn’t it? Not so! Decisions about how sites like this one should be used are made through the planning system.  This bureaucratic system is, in theory, supposed to give people like us the chance to express our common sense views  and influence Councillors. In fact, the process of making such arguments requires so much effort, and so many barriers to be overcome, it is not really democratic at all. Following Sheffield FoE’s highly successful resolution to conference last year, national FoE is thinking about how to campaign for improvements in the planning system itself. During February I travelled up to London and met with FoE staff and other local group members to discuss the sorts of changes we might like to see in the planning system. I think the Morrisons campaign is a great example which shows how and why these are necessary.

The Morrisons group have worked hard to develop a campaign against the development, and, in particular, to consult with local people to develop a set of alternative proposals for the site. But they are not familiar with the planning system. To develop planning based arguments against development proposals is not easy for community groups. The first step is to get a copy of the application. At the outrageous cost of £2 per A4 sheet Sheffield City Council charge over £500 for applications like the one by Morrisons. The next step is to try to pull the documents apart, to identify false assumptions and question inappropriate generalisations.   Often this means trying to understand the complex professional language of retail or transport analysts. The next step is to put together arguments against the application, backed up by local and national planning documents. Again, getting hold of copies of these documents is not always easy, and finding the appropriate arguments can be time consuming even for those familiar with the documents. Overall then, Morrisons shows how the planning system is a confusing and frustrating process. It is not surprising, then, that one of our major conclusions in London was that The Planning System needs to be made more accessible to all, both in terms of cost and of language.

The common sense reasons to oppose the Morrisons superstore may make sense to you and me, but they do not work as planning arguments. The planning case against Morrisons rests largely on the argument about whether the door of the development is near enough to Heeley to be considered as an ‘edge of centre development’. This absurd situation has led the developers to add an extra door at the far corner of the superstore (no promises that it will be unlocked though!) and provide covered walkways to further reduce the considerable distance from what is already a very run down shopping area. Apparently the developers think that building the superstore will help revive the Heeley shopping centre. I can just see all those shoppers leaving their car in the Morrisons store and then rushing past the superstore, along the 300m of passageways (and under the railway line and over the Chesterfield Road) ..... to what end? To visit the newsagents in Heeley? You’ve got to be kidding! This example shows how the substance of planning guidance needs to be reformed so good sense arguments - like the idea that the Tyzaks site ought to be used for Industrial or Housing development - can be put into practice by Planners. This leads to another conclusion, that Planning law needs to take more account of environmental consequences.

My final point concerns the future of the Morrisons application. If the Local Council refuses the development it is probable that Morrisons will appeal against this decision.  Appeals are heard by a government inspector.  They are expensive in both time and money for the local authority, who must bear the full cost of the appeal if they lose the case.   If, on the other hand, the Council accepts the planning proposal there is no possibility of the local authority incurring any cost, for unimportant ‘third parties’, like a community group, have no right to appeal against a planning decision.  Clearly, the risk of being taken to appeal therefore biases decision in favour of any developers.  This leads to the final conclusion, that community groups and other third parties need the right to appeal just like developers.

The residents campaigning group have now submitted their objections to the planning department, and await a decision on the Morrisons application imminently. Meanwhile, national FoE has resolved to push for a more fair and accessible planning system under the flag of a ‘sustainable politics’ campaign. Background work on this subject is already on the work plan of National FoE’s research unit. The campaigning team promise that this research will be followed up by a national level campaign on sustainable politics within the next five years.  

Too late for this superstore, perhaps, but not for millions more.