Call-in widely supported

In recent months we’ve been asking you and people further afield to write to the Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), Eric Pickles MP, to ask him to call-in a third application for a large supermarket and 54 homes on the site at Wilmer Place, hard by Abney Park cemetery.

That’s because the Secretary of State has wide discretion to call-in an application. That is to say he can intervene on planning applications before they are formally granted by the Local Planning Authority, and instead deal with them himself.

In practice this means his team at the National Planning Casework Unit (NPCU) in Birmingham, review cases brought to them and make a recommendation to the Secretary of State on whether the case meets certain criteria for call-in

The NPCU normally considers call-in immediately after a Local Planning Authority has made a recommendation to grant planning permission, but before it has formalised this by issuing a Decision Notice. In this case, Hackney made it’s recommendation at the Planning Sub-committee meeting on the evening of 11 December 2013.  The morning after, knowing we had already raised concerns about this application, The Secretary of State issued an Article 25 Direction to Hackney to stop them issuing a Decision Notice, whilst the NPCU considers call-in.

That’s where we are now. The NPCU are wading through our letters, the planning application itself, and the associated paperwork to see if the application ought to be called-in. We expect them to make a decision at the end of January 2014.

Call-in is quite rare, and although, in law, there is wide discretion to call in applications, in practice the NPCU looks for mainly matters of national importance. In May 2012, Parliament discussed this point:

Chris Heaton-Harris: What criteria he uses when calling in or recovering planning applications; and if he will make a statement:
The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Greg Clark): The Government believe that planning decisions should be taken in, and by, local communities, and so use their call-in powers sparingly. Essentially, the powers are used when matters are of national significance.

The Planning Inspectorate’s Good Practice Advice Note of March 2013 outlines some criteria for call-in, known as The Caborn Principles:

  • development that may conflict with national policies on important matters;
  • development that could have significant effects beyond its immediate locality;
  • development that raises significant architectural and urban design issues;
  • development where the interests of national security are involved, or the interest of foreign Governments;
  • development where there is substantial regional or national controversy.

In writing to the Secretary of State and NPCU we have asked people to concentrate on demonstrating the application meets some of these criteria.

There is often initial reluctance amongst politicians to support call-in as it is seen as giving up local powers. Indeed the Secretary of State agrees and it is why he is reluctant to call-in applications. However, in practice, if he agrees to call-in an application, the Planning Inspectorate appoints an inspector – a chartered town planner; not a politician or civil servant – with experience of the local area, to conduct a public inquiry, within the local area. Most likely at Hackney Town Hall, in this case. Although the Secretary of State does not have to agree with the Inspector’s recommendation, in practice he does.

So, to all intents and purposes, the process of call-in does not take the decision away from the local community. Rather it empowers the local community to get more directly involved by holding a local inquiry where evidence is presented openly and evaluated by a professional local inspector, against local and national policy. Indeed it’s exactly the same inquiry process as would occur if Hackney had refused the application and the applicant had decided to appeal. It’s just, as objectors, we have no route to appeal a decision, only to ask for it to be called-in, and hope the Secretary of State agrees.

As a campaign group we want an inquiry, because the process is more transparent. At a public inquiry we can ask questions and crucially, we can cross examine those giving evidence. We can vocalise our objections on all the matters we wish to raise and influence the decision process first hand, instead of having to rely on a 5 minute speech and hope for some helpful questions from Sub-committee members. Whilst inspectors are sometimes prone to making strange decisions, we will have had our “time in court” – a chance to present our full case. The Inspector will address our points directly. They are at liberty to make modifications to the application and impose conditions which change it – for instance,if they are minded to refuse the scheme proposed but grant a more modest scheme. Or they might refuse the scheme but make specific points about what would or would not be acceptable – which gives the Local Planning Authority and the applicant a clear idea of what might be acceptable in the next iteration of the scheme.

We can achieve an inquiry either by Hackney refusing a planning application, and the applicant appealing, or by Hackney recommending granting of an application and then us convincing the Secretary of State to call-in the proposal before a Decision Notice is issued.

In previous successful requests for call-in – particularly on heritage and environmental grounds – a large amount of public support across the political and geographical spectrum has been a crucial factor in persuading the Secretary of State. And rightly so; it demonstrates “greater than local” significance, and controversy.

Although members of the Planning Sub-committee are not whipped – indeed they must make decisions without political influence or loyalty – Hackney Council is almost entirely a Labour authority; and the Secretary of State will be acutely aware of this. It is significant that the Hackney Labour party supports the Stokey Local campaign. Indeed the support of two local Labour ward councillors has been unswerving and highly visible. Similarly the Hackney Liberal Democrats, whose Councillors are in one of the two bordering wards, have supported Stokey Local from the outset. That the Planning Sub-committee can come to an opposing decision is, one might argue, a testament to their political independence.

So it has been crucial to demonstrate wide political support from further afield. Key members of all four parties represented at the Greater London Assembly have written, in their own words, to the Secretary of State to ask him to call-in this application. And to them, we are grateful. You can read their letters below.

There is still time to get other political and expert ‘big hitters’ to write to the Secretary of State before they come to a conclusion at the end of the month. If you have any personal connection with  MPs of any persuasion from anywhere in England (the planning regime is different in the devolved assemblies), or with well known ecological, historical, architectural, retail experts or commentators, do please bend their ear and persuade them to support us by writing personal letters. We can guide them on the key procedural points and key factors of the scheme if needs be. Our consolidated call-in letter is available below:

If you have written, or are one of the almost 6,500 people who signed the call-in petition, thanks for your support. Whatever the outcome of the request to call-in the third application, there will be plenty more work to do defending the earlier Judicial Review (which we recently gained permission from the High Court to progress) and either instigating a second Judicial Review, or more hopefully, assembling a case for public inquiry. So stay tuned and keep spreading the word – there are a large number of local residents who are unaware of these challenges we make and that they are still able to help us to defeat the applications as they stand.

Nick Perry
Stokey Local “planning nerd”