David and Goliath: Is the planning system stacked against communities?

Steve Brooks reflects on the Blaengwrach Community Action Group campaign and the implications for Wales’ planning system

I first came across the Blaengwrach Community Action Group on Twitter.  A band of local residents in a cluster of villages in the Upper Neath valley were concerned about a planning application for a service station.  The plans, now approved, will push a spike in traffic coming off the A465 trunk road through their village.


Their story is the stuff of David and Goliath: a small group of concerned residents wading their way through an unfathomable system against a multi-national developer who will likely outspend and outgun them at every stage.  The group feel that their concerns about safety and the long-term sustainability of the scheme have gone unheard and, whilst they still oppose the development, their attention has now turned to how the construction and running of the service station will impact on the safety of local residents.   


I share the residents’ concerns about pedestrian safety and the impact on the local environment.  But their case illustrates a wider problem with the planning system: time after time local residents are pitted against bigger, better-resourced developers, and feel locked out of the decision-making process.


The sustainability of our communities and, ultimately, our nation depends on how we use our land.  Historically, development has been driven by narrow definitions of growth, often at the expense of promoting social value and enhancing the environment (both natural and built).  In 2000 Sue Essex, a planning expert and Assembly Member, became planning minister, and whilst her powers were limited by a curtailed model of devolution, Essex did set about making welcome reforms.  With primary law-making powers, in 2015 the National Assembly passed the Planning (Wales) Act, and last year Welsh Government revised Planning Policy Wales (PPW 10) and aligned it much more closely to the Well-being of Future Generations Act.  My charity, Sustrans, worked closely with planning officials, supporting government so that the new planning framework would better promote placemaking and sustainable transport.  PPW 10 is, by far, the best framework we have had and I was encouraged to see the planning minister Lesley Griffiths AM talked boldly about the importance of placemaking.  But the proof of the policy pudding is always in its implementation, and I fear the way the system treats local residents is still unfair and needs to change.


When I visited the Blaengwrach Community Action Group earlier this month I was struck by two things.  Their mission to stop or mitigate against the development was matched by a wider determination to stop other communities in Wales suffering like they have.  On March 19th the National Assembly’s Petitions Committee is due to consider a petition submitted by Emma Eynon, chair of Blaengwrach Community Action Group.  Emma’s petition is simple: she wants the National Assembly to look again at planning legislation. To consider whether the planning system, and in particular the appeals process is stacked in favour of big developers at the expense of local communities.  In Blaengwrach, local residents – largely without expertise or resource – are locked in a battle with a multi-national firm, ranked as the sixth biggest privately owned company in the UK. When it comes to appeal and judicial review, local residents will more often than not be legally outgunned by the big developers.  The Blaengwrach Community Action Group want the law changed so that impacted residents aren’t treated as ‘third parties’, but have more support and access to information during the planning application process and any subsequent appeal.


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Steve Brooks is director of Sustrans Cymru and writes in a personal capacity.  He tweets from @stephenbrooksUK

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