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Letters / Fundamental flaw in the system

In recent times there have been numerous news items, reader’s letters and comments about issues around the word ‘consultation’ or the lack of it, so it’s high time to debunk the nonsense and misuse of this word and the processes it is supposed to herald, in all areas other than a medical appointment.

Look up the Oxford Dictionary definition of ‘consultation’ and you will see this: “The process of discussing something with someone in order to get their advise or opinion.“

How utterly unrecognisable this definition is when applied to a planning application, school closures, ferry/bus timetable changes, council, quango or government decisions and just about everything that the establishment and its friends want to force on the public, irrespective of what advise or opinions the public give or express.

Every organisation, every government or local authority department, business or individual who wants to do something in your area or to build something or change the services you receive has to conform to the statutory legal requirements to consult.

However in the vast majority of all consultations, the exercise is a sham as there is no compulsion on anyone or any organisation that conducts a consultation to heed the advise, address opinions or concerns they generate.

Now and again there are a few better organisations and an even smaller number of businesses that sometimes slightly change their proposals in the light of concerns or hostilities, but it’s generally very rare that these sham exercises see any meaningful changes to the original proposals.

So let’s look at some recent examples:-

  1. Yell Community Council were unable to respond to their statutory right to respond to the Energy Isles wind farm consultation because there weren’t enough members, who weren’t personally involved or beneficiaries of the development.
    That’s a disgraceful abuse of local democracy on its own but it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, as the SIC, it’s planning department and the developer are under no obligation and often no inclination to heed anything by anyone, statutory or otherwise.
  2. Council chief executive Maggie Sandison recently signed (on behalf of the whole Shetland community) a memorandum of understanding with Lockheed Martin regarding the Unst Space Centre proposals.
    No consultation with anyone outside of Lerwick Town Hall which would seem to show that our esteemed leaders also accept the pointlessness of such exercises.
    However when any planning application is lodged the Unst Community Council, as a statutory consultee will be asked to comment on the planning application despite the SIC already having made up its mind and the prospect of any concerns the Unst CC may have, being utterly irrelevant if the SIC chooses; ditto any individuals living under the jet trails.
  3. Viking Energy! No need to go into this one here as we all know how the word ‘consultation’ was abused and turned into a platform of misinformation and fantasy environmental impact assessments.
    However referring to Viking Energy allows me to return to my lifelong battle against the ‘unfit for purpose’ Scottish planning system and inform folk who don’t really understand how the planning system really works.

In a nutshell, the planning system is totally rigged in favour of the developer and this is basically how it works. The developer submits a planning application which is deliberated on by the planning department, which may then seek more information and certain studies/evidence/documentation etc in the form of impact assessments (social or environmental).

The planning department will also have to conduct a consultation with the statutory groups and bodies in the area impacted. They will have to advertise the application in the area impacted to allow any concerns or objections to the application by other non statutory groups and of course local individuals.

Once all the required documentation and studies have been presented along with the consultees’ comments plus any objections the planning department will then make its recommendations to the council’s planning committee, which will ultimately decide to approve or reject the application (unless, as in the Viking Energy application where the Scottish Government assumed the role of the planning committee/deciding authority).

Now, if the application is refused for whatever reason, the developer can challenge the refusal and seek an appeal, with the possibility of having the original refusal reversed and able to proceed with their plans.

However, if on the other hand the application is granted, there is no similar right to challenge the consent and no right to seek a similar appeal by the statutory consultees, other local groups and individual objectors.

This is a fundamental flaw in the system that is utterly unfair and unjust, as it’s placing communities most affected by a development (often driven by profits and by folk who live many miles away) as unimportant, irrelevant and who have no fair or meaningful participation in decisions that affect their local communities.

This is why a growing number of organisations and individuals claim that the planning system is entirely skewed in favour of the developers and is working against local communities.

A claim almost impossible to counter by our politicians who only respond by burying their heads in the sand hoping it will go away, which it will not.

Oh, and the larger the developments are, the greater the unjustness in the system becomes and the term ‘consultation’ getting much, much further away from it’s Oxford Dictionary meaning.

Vic Thomas

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