Seeing the wood and the trees

The national media has been giving significant coverage to the antics of Extinction Rebellion in their protests. I share many of their objectives in raising the climate change issues but am less than impressed by some of their tactics which are losing them public sympathy.

Over the last five years, the local media has devoted many broadcast hours and column inches to a couple of hundred highways’ trees on a few roads in south-west Sheffield. When these activists turned up on streets in my constituency, they were sent packing by local residents.

Overwhelmingly, local people tell me that they like trees, they want more of them, they want appropriate trees, they want them to be pruned so that they do not restrict all the light to their homes and, when tree roots damage the pavements so they become impassable or dangerous for wheelchairs and prams and pedestrians, they want action taken to sort it out. I agree.

Given the nature of some contributions to the local tree debate, you wouldn’t know that Sheffield had added more trees generally, and more highways trees specifically, in each and every year sine the second world war. And the same is true for Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham.

But, even if more trees were added in South Yorkshire at the same rate as has happened over the last 70 years, this may be insufficient to meet the current climate change challenges. Of course, nationally and internationally, there needs to be a wide range of actions if we are to reverse the heating of the planet. Some of the media might assist by halting the hot air being emitted from some prominent climate change deniers who, contrary to all the evidence, continue to behave like 21st century flat-earthers.

So, it should be no surprise that I am one of 120 northern MPs and council leaders – from all parties – to support the growth of the Northern Forest.  Last week, we wrote to the Prime Minister asking for his support and commitment to the project.

Currently, only 7.6% of the North of England is covered by woodland, considerably lower than the 10% national average.

The plan is to get 50 million trees planted over the next 25 years in the North of England by the Woodland Trust and their partners; more than 600,000 already in the ground. The forest will span 120 miles, from Liverpool in the west to Hull in the east, and from Lancaster in the north to Sheffield in the south.

This would establish 24k hectares of new woodland, which would absorb up to 7.5m tonnes of carbon each year. As well as reducing flooding, it will increase bio-diversity and develop new habitats. It will also create new jobs and enable new economic opportunities.

Let’s hope we can see the new woods and enjoy the new trees.

Off the buses

I have written and spoken many times about the disastrous legacy of Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation – she called it ‘deregulation’ – of our bus services.

The result has been passengers and routes cut by a third and increased congestion on our roads, with big additional costs for business – and, therefore, in the prices we all pay in the shops.  It has also meant a reduction in the abilities of family and friends to care for relatives and in the ability of young people to travel to enjoy their recreation for education, sport and leisure. Undoubtedly, it has made a contribution to attendances at Sheffield’s excellent sporting facilities, as recently reported.

Buses account for some 60% of all public transport journeys in England, more than the trains and underground combined, with nearly 5bn passenger trips. But because of the Conservative government’s cuts, more than 3000 bus routes have been cut altogether or reduced in the last 5 years.

I’m very pleased that Sheffield City Region Mayor Dan Jarvis has asked me to lead an inquiry as to how to improve bus services in South Yorkshire. I welcome all contributions.

Boris Johnson recently said:

“A good bus service can make all the difference to your job,, to your life, to your ability to get to the doctor, to the liveability of your town or your village, and to your ability to stay there and have a family there and start a business there.”

Unsurprisingly, I agree with every word of that. Perhaps his experience of London buses, where a franchise system operates, unlike the rest of England, made a difference to his thinking.

Mind you, Matt Chorley of The Times reminded us this week that Mr Johnson bus interests go wider than just that. As Matt wrote:

“Boris Johnson won’t stop going on about them, declaring in several interviews this week and in his conference speech, that he is “a bit of a bus nut”.

He certainly has history with buses: ordering expensive, impractical Routemasters for London, writing questionable claims about £350 million down the side of a luxury coach and throwing his old mate Dave under a bus when it suited him.

Then there is his weird hobby of making model buses, as he revealed during the leadership contest and wheeled out again this week: “I like to make and paint inexact models of buses with happy passengers inside.” Why all this interest in buses all of a sudden?”

So, last week, in the House of Commons, I asked the Government Minister of the Day (Dominic Raab):

“On 27 July in Manchester, the Prime Minister said he wanted to bring northern cities’ bus services up to the same level as London’s.

Bus services are really important to my constituents. The problem is that, currently, Government funding for bus services is £75 a head in London but £5 a head in Sheffield.

Although the Chancellor has announced a further £200 million for bus services, it would take half that money to bring Sheffield’s funding level alone up to London’s.

Are the Government really going to fund the better bus services the Prime Minister promised for northern cities such as Sheffield, or have we again had a grand announcement from the Prime Minister that, on detailed examination, simply is not worth the paper it is written on?”

It is only fair to give his answer:

“I say to the hon. Gentleman, the Chairman of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, that we are absolutely committed to boosting bus services in his constituency and indeed infrastructure right across the country. That includes transport, that includes broadband, and that means making sure that we have a more balanced economy that can boost jobs, reduce deprivation and ensure we can fund the precious public services we need. On the specific point he raised, I will ask the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to write to him personally.”

I’m still waiting for the Secretary of State to answer. I’m realistic enough to believe that there is a gulf between what Mr Johnson says and what he does.

Money isn’t the only thing that will improve bus services in South Yorkshire, but it is the No 1 issue on the list.


Like you, I’m very familiar with the frustrated outburst “Well, somebody ought to do something about it.”

I hear it all the time about fly-tipping, phoning whilst driving, speeding in 20 mph zones, unkempt front gardens, dropping litter, misuse of blue badges…and, most of the time, I share those frustrations.

In nearly every one of those cases, there are laws – criminal and civil – which govern what is unacceptable or criminal. However, what they all share is the problem of collecting the evidence necessary to persuade the courts that individuals are guilty or that the authorities should take action.

As a councillor or MP, it is even more frustrating when you have to explain to justifiably annoyed residents that everyone wants to act, but that the law doesn’t allow it. And, it’s head-bangingly annoying when there used to be the power to act, but that those powers have been taken away.

And, so it is that I come to write about empty homes.

Nearly every elected representative will have received a delegation from local residents – usually led by the people who live in the neighbouring properties – demanding action about the house which remains empty, falls into disrepair, enjoys gardens resembling refuse-strewn jungles, and which attracts thieves wanting to remove anything of value. However, as you listen, you know that the powers to act have been seriously constrained and, even if there were some powers that could be used, you know that the process is likely to be long and expensive. You know that you could spend that money in so many better ways.

So, based on personal experience of tackling these issues, I was delighted to support the provisions in the 2004 Housing Act to enable councils to take over the management of certain residential premises that had been empty for at least six months by applying for an Empty Dwelling Management Order (EDMO). This power came into effect in July 2006.

At the time, I was surprised by the opposition from some Conservative MPs to these new provisions. I had under-estimated their visceral opposition to any initiative which interfered with the total and absolute right of the landowner to do what s/he likes with their property. Their characterisation of the new law as ‘giving untrammelled powers to separate landowners from their property’ was a travesty of the truth and  completely misleading.

Typically, some of the tabloid media weighed in with stories that councils would be seizing properties for seven years and that owners had no right of appeal against this expropriation. Of course, it wasn’t true. Government departments persistently had to refute these fake facts.

In reality, what the new law, and its guidance, did was to provide councils with the last resort powers of EDMOs to enable them to persuade owners to engage in serious discussion about the best way of bringing the home back into use. Over the next 4 years, councils used the threat of using the new powers as the vehicle for bringing hundreds of homes back in to use, new occupiers got a home and their neighbours were delighted that the nuisance had come to an end. Everybody, apart from a few disgruntled landlords, were happy with the outcomes.

However, entirely on ideological grounds, the new Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, announced in January 2011 that he intended to change the regulations in order to “protect civil liberties.”

Thus it was that the new Conservative/Liberal Democrat government introduced new regulations providing that EDMOs can only be sought where a property has been empty for two years (as opposed to six months), and requiring an authority to give the owner at least three months’ notice of the intention to apply for an order.

Of course, the result of their joint action with the Conservatives has been that, without the EDMO last resort powers, the number of empty homes – causing nuisance to neighbours and leaving another family unnecessarily homeless – has risen again. The latest official statistics report that there has been another near 5% increase since last year in the number of homes in England that have been empty for more than 6 months. That’s nearly 220,000 homes. It’s unnecessary and unacceptable.

Is it any wonder that I come over all apoplectic whenever I hear a Liberal Democrat representative or candidate complaining about an empty property? Do these people have no shame?

Let me assure you that I will continue to argue for a return to the powers in the 2004 Housing Act. It will be good for communities and good for those seeking a home.

Affairs of state

In July 2019, and in his first speech as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson said:

“We will fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared to give every older person the dignity and security they deserve”.

The need to reform funding for adult social care – all the support services that help elderly people and adults with disabilities to remain in their own homes as well as the funding of residential care when that is the most appropriate or inevitable – has been crying out for urgent action for nearly twenty years.

There have been a number of Green (outline consultation) and White (proposals) Papers looking at this challenge. Governments have appointed two independent commissions: a Royal Commission on Long Term Care for the Elderly, reporting in 1999, and the Commission on the Funding of Care and Support, reporting in 2011. 

There has been an enormous amount of high-quality research by eminent academics and respected independent institutions. There have been cross-party proposals about the best way forward, including the joint all-party proposal from the Health and Social Care (chaired by Sarah Wollaston, then Conservative MP) and Housing, Communities and Local Government (chaired by me) Committees.

Of course, the big stumbling block is money. Not just the total amount of new funding that will be required to implement any reforms, but also the balance between individual and collective contributions and the distribution across and between taxpayers, and whether those sums should be collected through particular taxes nationally or locally.

I know I should not be surprised, but it makes me quite angry when I hear how often some Conservative MPs campaign for cuts in Inheritance Tax to benefit a small number of already wealthy families whilst remaining silent about the impact of the current social care contributions which can devastate the finances of households of very modest means just because a member of that family requires long-term residential care.

The Commission on the Funding of Care and Support’s proposed cap on lifetime social care charges and a more generous means-test was ditched by Theresa May’s government in 2015. After much pressure, in March 2017, she announced a new Green Paper which would set out options, including a more generous means-test limit, a cap on lifetime social care costs, insurance and other ideas. That report was promised by the summer of 2017.

Summer 2017 went and gone with no sight of the Green Paper. Between then and November 2018, the Conservative government announced 5 deadlines for publication – a new one each time it failed to meet the last. Since then, every enquiry has been met with ‘at the earliest opportunity’.

This month, No 10 sources have been feeding their favoured journalists with the suggestion that the idea of a Green Paper is to be abandoned and that the government will move straight to a White Paper…on an unspecified timetable. Of course, the problem is that we are now in a situation where we can’t trust a word Boris Johnson says.

Mr Johnson seems to have a problem with women. As Matt Chorley of The Times put it today:

So you can ask (people) “Do you think the prime minister has questions to answer about his treatment of women?” and they are forced to respond: “Do you mean the one who said he groped her, the one who said she slept with him and got public money or the Queen?”

Perhaps Mr Chorley needs reminding that the majority of people supported through adult social care – or worse, not supported through adult social care as more than 500,000 fewer elderly people are now receiving home care than a decade ago because of the government cuts – are women.

When it comes to the media’s coverage of Mr Johnson’s affairs of state relating to women, perhaps they might include a question about adult social care funding?

Boris gets something right!

Last week, I questioned Boris Johnson’s character, his ability to tell the truth, and how his behaviour was trashing the UK’s reputation for honesty and fair-dealing.

Well, it seems I am not alone in that analysis.

I don’t think I have ever heard a more damning judgement than the one delivered by Lady Hale today, on behalf of a unanimous Supreme Court, on the unlawful attempt to prorogue Parliament. I say ‘attempt’ because the judges said that all the actions following the purported propagation of parliament had no effect.

Lady Hale said:

“It is impossible for us to conclude, on the evidence that has been put before us, that there was any reason, let alone a good reason, to advise Her Majesty to prorogue parliament for 5 weeks….the decision was unlawful.”

As the Speaker of the House of Commons accurately summarised:

“That judgment is unanimous, that judgment is unambiguous and that judgment is unqualified.”

So, in this case, Boris Johnson misled his own Cabinet, he misled Parliament and he misled the Queen. I have little doubt that a previous Queen Elizabeth (Ist) would have had his head off by now!

We will obviously return to these matters in due course.

However, Boris Johnson did get one thing right this week. It’s probably the exception that proves the rule!

He criticised the directors of Thomas Cook for paying themselves squillions before the 178-year-old tour company went “down the tubes”. Mr Johnson said it was “bewildering” that the taxpayer should be forced to pay millions to rescue 150,000 British holidaymakers stranded abroad. It will be the biggest repatriation effort since the Second World War.

Actually, it’s a bill of tens of millions that you and I, the taxpayers, will be picking up to bring holidaying families safely home and to contribute to the staff’s redundancy pay. Further, there are questions to ask about why the government wasn’t intervening before this time to minimise the costs and the disruption.

But I agree with the criticism of the directors and shareholders of Thomas Cook about the tens of millions that have been spent on executive pay over the last five years.

So, it is in the same spirit that I have tabled questions about the demise of All Star Lanes, a company which owns five bowling alleys. It was sold last week in a pre-pack administration, effectively to a new company using the same brand, the same alleys and with the same staff. However, that sale is likely to be at the expense of the majority of the company’s creditors. These are the other businesses that were owed money by All Star Lanes. It also means that taxpayers – again that’s you and me – will have to pick up a big bill because the company has not been handing over taxes – VAT, income tax, business rates etc

Well, you may say, companies sometimes fail and everyone gets hurt. That’s of course true.

However, in the case of All Star Lanes, it had paid out a bumper dividend of £16 million to its shareholders and £600,000 bonuses to its managers last year after selling one of its properties, leaving the company underfunded.

So, the secured creditors – like the banks – get paid, the shareholders and managers enjoy bumper profits and bonuses, whilst the little guys (the small businesses which have provided goods and services) don’t get paid and the public purse gets stuffed.

You’re right. It stinks.

And, in principle and effect, it is absolutely no different from the Thomas Cook debacle. In fact, the Thomas Cook demise may be down to managerial incompetence whereas the demise of All Star Lanes directly flowed from the bumper pay-outs to managers and shareholders.

So, is there any reason why Boris Johnson might not be equally scathing and less committed to investigations into events at All Star Lanes? Other than the fact that one of the shareholders who enjoyed a bumper pay-out is multi-millionaire Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith?

You can understand why I’m asking questions of government ministers.

Eight minutes gone

It is unfortunate that we now have a Prime Minister whose assertions are so at variance with the facts.

I’m reluctant to use the word ‘lie’; it’s not a word I normally use or find helpful. I far prefer to play the policy not the man. However, it is clear that we have a Prime Minister who is so careless with the truth and the facts, and whose moral compass means he is not averse to telling porkies time after time after time.

This is nothing new.

The respected Max Hastings was Editor of the Daily Telegraph when Boris Johnson was a journalist on the paper. He said:

There is room for debate about whether he (Boris) is a scoundrel or mere rogue, but not much about his moral bankruptcy, rooted in a contempt for truth.” 

This weekend, former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron said

“Boris rode the (Brexit) bus around the country; he left the truth at home.”

In the last month,

  • Mr Johnson instructed his spokespersons to persistently deny that he was considering the (unlawful) prorogation of Parliament. Unfortunately for him, the government’s lawyers handed the documentary proof to the contrary to Scottish judges, showing that he had been planning it for weeks before;
  • “We’re levelling up schools across the country by investing over £14 billion in primary and secondary education between now and 2022/23” says the No 10 Twitter account. The increase is £4.3 billion by 2022/23 once inflation is accounted for.
  • “They (Scotland) have the highest taxes anywhere in Europe” said Mr Johnson A number of European countries have higher income tax rates than Scotland.

The list is almost endless.

Then, last Friday, in Rotherham, during a question and answer session with local journalists, Mr Johnson was asked a question by a reporter from the Rotherham Advertiser.

A few months ago, you said in a radio interview that local police forces were spaffing money up the wall on investigations into historic CSE. Do you still believe they are?”  

Mr Johnson replied:

Well, that’s actually not what I said, but what I certainly can say is all such investigations, certainly here, are extremely important.”

But, actually, that is precisely what Mr Johnson had said in March this year when he answered a question LBC Radio about police resources.

I think an awful lot of money, an awful lots of police time, now goes into these historic offences and all this malarkey and you know £60million I saw has been spaffed up the wall on some investIgation into historic child abuse? What on earth is that going to do to protect the public now?”

Over the last three years, the UK has lost its reputation for competence.

The events of the last few weeks have made us the laughing-stock of the world.

Boris Johnson’s behaviour is rapidly losing the UK its reputation for honesty and fair-dealing.

It takes 10 years to build a good reputation and 10 minutes to trash it. Mr Johnson has already used 8 of them.

In the cold light of day…

The constitutional shenanigans of the last few days, stemming from Boris Johnson’s determination to avoid parliamentary scrutiny of his Brexit strategy, have overshadowed scrutiny of last week’s Spending Review (SR) announcement.

The SR is meant to set firm expenditure limits for government departments and to state clearly what we should get for that spending. Introduced in 1998, and taking place every 2-4 years, the last one was in 2015. The government had announced that there would be a three-year SR before the summer but have been shuffling their feet ever since.

Let’s be clear. What we got last week was a pre-election stunt, not a serious SR. It was all about the Conservatives trying to get good news headlines.

We should have been having a three-year Spending Review after we had received updated economic reports and forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR). Instead, there were no OBR reports and we got a one-year SR.

Given what has happened to the UK economy since the last OBR report, it would have been likely that the Chancellor would have had less room for manoeuvre if he was to keep within his own fiscal rules. Whatever, he nearly ‘maxed the card’, as all his announced national additional expenditure is to be funded by increased borrowing and not by increased income. So much for ‘cutting the debt’.

Meanwhile, at local level, increased expenditure on adult social care and police is to be funded by increased council taxes and additional precepts. When the Chancellor announced the amount of extra money going to pay for extra police officers and extra care for the elderly, he assumed that every council in England would increase council tax and special precepts to the maximum amount allowed. Effectively, the government now sets every council’s council tax level, its police and adult social care precepts, and the business rates.

The total additional expenditure announced – £13.8bn – is less than a third of the cuts that have been announced since 2010, some £47bn. Many of those cuts are still unwinding locally, so any increase in resources is going to be from a new reduced base.

For example, many schools have still to reflect their real terms reductions in resources in their spending plans. To date, they have been paying some teachers and teaching assistants from their reserves. Increased resources may allow them not to sack teachers (more usually, not fill vacancies when teachers leave), but it won’t allow them to replace the teachers they have already lost.

For example, the additional funds for ‘more police officers’ isn’t sufficient to take the numbers back up to where they were in 2010. In any event, when we read the small print, this additional spending is not just for local policing but is also to fund some national projects. Take my word for it; there will not be the claimed additional 20,000 police officers. The best estimate is 13,000 nationally, well below the numbers when the Conservatives took office in 2010.

Despite the sticking plaster in the face of gaping wounds, adult social care is still facing a £2.6bn gap this year. Breaking promise after promise, the government has now ‘deferred’ the publication of a green paper on 8 occasions. This is all to do with political cowardice as, just as there are huge shifts in the Conservative Party on Brexit, there are similar differences on funding adult social care for the decades to come.

The next observation is that the total additional expenditure announced – £13.8bn – is not all ‘new money’. For example, more than half of the £1.8bn for the NHS is already in the bank accounts of local NHS Trusts. They have been saving it up to fund local building renewal and big maintenance projects. All that has happened is that the government is now going to allow them to spend it. Even so, it is far below the £6bn maintenance backlog which has built up since the cuts from 2010.

Of course, the extra £400m for Further Education and 16-19 education is welcome, but it is just one eighth of the cuts that have been made. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) reports that spending on further education and skills has fallen by £3.3 billion in real terms between 2010-11 and 2017-18, leaving our valuable further education sector severely underfunded at the very time we need to be increasing skills to support economic renewal and change.

Similarly, the extra expenditure on Special Educational Needs (SENDS) is less than half of the already identified gap between existing income and expenditure which councils are currently funding by stopping expenditure on SureStart, libraries, parks and highway maintenance.

And, don’t lets forget that the Chancellor was silent about social security where half of the already announced cuts are still to be implemented.

In the cold light of day, Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid have handed out a half-emptied box of sticking plasters with smiley faces which are simply not up to the job of supporting a transition to the operating theatre, let alone providing the route to a healthy, sustainable policy of economic, social and environmental renewal.

Bin there, done that, get real!

Who could argue with the twin objectives of minimising waste and maximising re-cycling of what remains?

But the government’s proposals to require one national prescriptive approach – not just a strategy, but also the detailed arrangements – to recycling and waste management are simply unwise. It’s a completely unnecessary, and counter-productive, burden on councils and on local communities and households.

The government has said that it should decide and enforce rules on all aspects of refuse collection services including the frequency of collections and which services should or should not be charged for. There would be no flexibility for councils to react to local conditions and this would be disastrous.

It is also proposing that it would require councils to introduce between one and three recycling bins, on top of residual waste, food waste and garden waste bins. That means that every household would be required to have between four and six bins.

Many households have enormous difficulty coping with the two or three bins they have now. Just tell me where people will be expected to store six separate bins outside or inside their homes, particularly in areas of high-density housing where space is inevitably limited. Even four bins—the minimum the Government is proposing—will be challenging for many households.

There must be a sensible balance between requiring councils to improve recycling and waste management and letting them decide, in consultation with local residents, on the best way of achieving those targets. It’s local knowledge in providing services that match local need that will deliver the best service and value for tax-payers.

I know that if the government gets it wrong, it will be local councils and local councillors who will bear the brunt of local people’s anger and frustration.

And that’s what the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which I chair, has told the government this week. Mr Johnson doesn’t appear to be in listening mode this week, but I hope he’ll be listening and taking note of what we’ve said loudly and clearly.

The main recommendations of our report are:

  • The Government is right to set ambitious targets for re-cycling, however it must allow local authorities greater flexibility in how they are achieved.
  • At times, the Waste Strategy seeks to dictate from the centre that which would be better determined by local decision makers. Current proposals seek to prescribe how many recycling bins are needed, the frequency of food and residual waste collections, and mandatory free garden waste collection may prove inappropriate for some councils. Local authorities should retain as much flexibility as possible to determine the most effective waste collection strategies for their communities.
  • More information is needed on the additional sources of funding that local authorities will receive to meet the additional costs arising from the Waste Strategy, including set-up costs and ongoing operation. Local authority representatives should be allowed to scrutinise the data that informed the Government’s proposals and assess if additional funding is likely to be needed.
  • The proposed Extended Producer Responsibility Scheme – through which producers will bear a greater responsibility for the disposal of the materials they introduce into the system – is welcomed, but must prove a reliable, long term source of income. There should be greater clarity on how this money will be passed on to local authorities and the Government should commit to undertaking a regular review of the funding levels it delivers.
  • Existing recycling infrastructure is inadequate to meet ambitious targets and significant investment (potentially, £20 billion) will be needed. The Government will need to work with the industry to ensure that the right infrastructure is in the right places, and set-up at a reasonable cost. The Government should also commit to covering any costs for infrastructure improvement so that it does not get passed on to local authorities, producers or consumers.

You can find our report at

Planning disagreements

Every so often, there is a local media story about a planning issue. Typically, it is about someone – an individual or a company – having submitted an application for planning permission and other local residents or businesses objecting to the proposal.

When the matter is particularly controversial, all sorts of comments are made and reported which reveal a failure to understand how the planning system works in England. This is not surprising for a number of reasons, including

  • planning and planning law don’t feature on the national curriculum
  • planning law and the roles of councils, councillors and planning inspectors have changed in recent years
  • most households never have to resort to understanding planning law
  • people make all incorrect assumptions about the roles of their local council in planning and of councillors on planning committees, and
  • too often, emotions trump facts when people feel strongly about something.

At its simplest, councils are required to produce local plans in the context of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which is determined by the government. It is often aspects of the government requirements – for example, the number of new homes to be built in the planning period – which are the context for contentious decisions.

Applications for planning permission are made to and considered by the councils – your local planning authority (LPA). In practice, LPAs delegate the decision-making on the majority of applications to planning officers.  Last year, 94% of planning applications in England were delegated to officers, the highest ever proportion. However, the biggest and the most contentious applications will be considered by the local planning committee.

These applications will almost certainly be considered by the planning committee after the production of a report by a planning officer, which will detail the key issues by reference to the NPPF, the local plan, and any submissions by the applicant and objectors.

Councillors on the planning committee don’t have a free rein in deciding what should or shouldn’t happen.  They are there to represent the interests of the whole community. Often, they have to balance conflicting aspirations and problems – one person’s right to light has to be balanced against their neighbour’s desire to build an extension.

  • councillors mustn’t pre-judge applications and must maintain an open mind
  • they must do so in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise
  • they must only take into account material planning considerations and must dis-regard legally irrelevant considerations, and
  • however vocal, local opposition or support for a proposal is not in itself a ground for refusing or granting planning permission, unless it is founded upon valid material planning reasons.

The latest national guidance doesn’t stop a councillor who has previously expressed a view or even campaigned on an application from taking part in the planning committee’s consideration, but they mustn’t have a closed mind on the issue. I’m not convinced that this, in practice, is helpful guidance, as it provides a temptation to some councillors – especially those in a minority who can rely on other committee members to get them out of trouble – “to play politics in the hope of personal or political benefit”.

Every council is required to have a code of conduct which governs ethical standards of councillors, including about planning. They are required to declare any private interests and act in a way that protects the public interest. Contravention of the requirement to register or declare financial interests is a criminal offence. Allegations of corruption in the English planning system are extremely rare; take no notice of the anonymous trolls who suggest otherwise. I’m very clear that anyone who acts unethically should expect the toughest sanctions.

If an application is clearly contrary to the agreed development plan – for example, building houses or a business park on agricultural land – it has to be advertised as such and there are particular procedures to be followed.

Where councillors overturn the advice of planning officers, the planning committee has to give detailed reasons.

If applicants feel that any proposal has been judged unfairly or unreasonably, they can appeal to a planning inspector. If the planning officers have made a positive recommendation based on the planning policy guidance, any rejection by councillors is likely to lead to the council losing the appeal. In some circumstances, costs can be awarded against the council, particularly if there has been “unreasonable behaviour”. These can run into hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The excellent House of Commons Library has just published a new briefing paper1 on these issues. It’s well worth a read and also gives links to other relevant briefings about planning.

1 Must planning committees follow officers’ advice in reaching decisions?

No more roaming free?

No more roaming free?

Those who can remember back more than two years may remember how the telecoms companies just ripped us off when we travelled abroad. Many were the stories of people who returned from their holidays to discover mobile phone bills bigger than the cost of the holiday itself.

Allegedly, this was because the UK telecom had to conclude a commercial agreement with a foreign telecom to use its network and that this costed a lot. This meant that mobile operators charged customers big additional fees for using the service when abroad.

In reality, this was nonsense. Either the telecoms companies owned overseas networks or they bought or exchanged capacity in the overseas markets at next to no additional cost. None of this could justify the exorbitant charges to customers or the super-profits being made from those charges by the operators.

However, in one of those much-maligned EU regulatory interventions, in July 2017, roaming charges in the European Economic Area (EEA = EU countries plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) were abolished. In practice, this has meant that UK mobile customers can use their domestic allowance of minutes, text messages and data throughout the EEA without incurring additional charges. EU regulations set limits on the wholesale roaming charges mobile operators can charge each other.

However, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, surcharge-free roaming cannot be guaranteed.

The government has already agreed new regulations – Mobile Roaming (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 – which will come into force on exit day. They remove the requirement for UK mobile operators to provide surcharge-free roaming in the EEA. However, other consumer protection provisions such as a default financial limit on mobile data usage abroad (set at £45) and requirements for mobile operators to inform customers when 80% and 100% of their data usage has been reached, will continue to apply in UK law.

Of course, mobile operators may choose to continue to offer surcharge free roaming after Brexit despite not being under an EU legal obligation to do so. This would be a commercial decision for each mobile operator.

Similarly, landline and mobile calls and texts from the UK to EU countries have been capped at 19p per minute for calls and 6p per text since May this year.

In the event of a no-deal Brexit, UK telecom operators would not be bound by these EU regulations. In fact, the government has again passed regulations that will repeal, on exit day, the legislation that imposes the capped charges.

Therefore, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, all of us who make calls, or travel, to EEA countries will need to be extremely vigilant and keep abreast of what their telecoms operator has decided to do.

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