Opinion: fed up Bedfordians deserve urgent update to planning process

5G mast protest sign no consultation Barkers Lane 5 November 2023
5G mast protest sign on Barkers Lane. Local residents say they were not consulted on the plans, despite Bedford Borough Council placing planning notices in local print media

The way Bedford Borough Council engages with local people during planning applications is outdated, not fit for purpose and it’s keeping taxpayers in the dark.

For quite some time, it’s been clear people up and down the UK are not fully engaged with the local planning process, with 41% telling YouGov that better promotion of public notices like planning applications and consultations would help.

This has come to a head locally, with readers telling the Bedford Independent they are fed up with not knowing what planning applications are happening on their doorstep.

Under current legislation, like any other council, Bedford Borough Council must engage with residents who may be affected by planning decisions in their area.

The level of interaction needed between the planning team, which collects responses from local people who wish to register their approval or objection for applications, is varied.

It can range from asking a few people living nearby for views to full-blown consultations across a large area involving thousands of people.

Yet, all too often the people I speak to don’t have a clue what’s happening and where they’d find these applications or consultations if they needed to.

That’s despite the council having a statutory obligation to make sure as many taxpayers as possible can be a part of the process.

Times have changed

Once upon a time, a great way to let local people know about all kinds of planning applications was to place a public notice in the local paper. It is still a legislative requirement that councils do this for some planning applications.

The definition of a newspaper for the purposes of public notices, however, is that it needs to be printed.

While this is fine if you have a printed newspaper in your local area that covers a large area, it’s no good if your local paper doesn’t reach as far as it once did, and if the people you want to reach rely on more modern sources of news.

Recently, locals in and around Newnham Avenue have complained they were unaware that a 5G mast was being installed nearby. The planning application has already been approved so there’s little anyone can do to get this changed.

While Bedford Borough Council say they didn’t have to place a public notice in the local printed newspaper for these types of applications, the feeling that local people and planning are disjointed is strong and this hasn’t helped.

Just a couple of miles up the road, people living near Bedford Park are frustrated that they were not consulted on a change of use of the park for the forthcoming Winter Wonderland event.

This application has been advertised in the only eligible local paper (Times & Citizen), but it appears no one has seen it.

This is likely due to the fact this publication has gone from a circulation of 80,000 in 2010 to a tiny circulation of just over 23,000, according to the latest ABC data.

That may still sound like a lot of papers, but when you consider the population of Bedford Borough is now 186,000 across 75,000 households, that’s only enough public notices for an eighth of Bedfordians.

It’s no surprise people are feeling increasingly ill-informed.

To be fair to Bedford Borough Council, their hands are a little tied. The legislation that seems to have such an archaic definition of what a newspaper is and where public notices are published is determined by Westminster.

Despite calls by publishers, organisations and regulators up and down the country to modernise the definition of a newspaper, so that digital news sources can help local planning departments satisfy their obligations, there has been no movement and people continue to be left in the dark.

It’s been done before

The rules on where public notices could be advertised were relaxed temporarily during COVID.

With many local print titles suspending their print editions, the government did allow councils to use digital news titles to keep local people informed.

They clearly understood that with little to no print offering people would be out of the loop if they didn’t utilise modern news channels.

This temporary move to a more modern planning process was sadly rolled back once the print editions resumed.

However, with still only enough printed copies of a newspaper in Bedford Borough to reach a tiny fraction of the population, surely Bedford Borough Council could argue that it is not able to satisfy its responsibility to the taxpayer if it has to use such rigid definitions.

If Bedford Borough Council really did want to hear the views of local people, they’d do all they could to satisfy their obligations to provide a fully transparent and informed planning process.

Surely Bedford Borough Council recognises that if they really do want to make sure local people are informed about the local planning process and that we have a fully engaged community, then they must make a move to use alternative ways to keep people in the loop.

Bedford Borough Council is not complying with its requirements as a local authority and the need to do this must supersede any other legislation that says public notices must only be in print.

Bedford Borough Council needs to look at the way that people consume their information and use those channels to make sure as many people as possible are aware of what’s happening on their doorstep.

It’s 2023

The latest data from Ofcom shows that 68% of people consume news online, with news websites like the Bedford Independent being the only news source showing significant growth, up from 66% in 2022.

People getting their news from printed sources continues to fall with only 26% of people saying they read newspapers, local or national.

While genuine editorial and regulated print media where it exists still plays a part in local democracy and the ecosystem of a thriving and informed community, the changing way people consume their news means placing planning notices only in print is not sufficient.

Whether people are in favour or against plans by those who want to develop the land around our homes, change the use of properties in our neighbourhoods, build rail lines through our countryside, or put mobile phone masts up on our street corners, thanks to the current system we’ll never know.

The Mayor, councillors and officers at Borough Hall need to decide what is best for local people, regardless of the archaic guidance of government, and put local taxpayers first.

It is they who they serve and it is they who they ultimately answer to.

By waiting for guidance on where planning notices can be advertised, guidance that has already come far too late for people to have their say on how Bedford Borough is changed, Bedford Borough Council are not holding a transparent and including planning process.

The only way local people will regain the opportunity to be fully informed and have a say in how the area we live in evolves and grows for the better, is if Bedford Borough Council takes matters into their own hands and does what’s right for local people now.

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