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Planning blackout: How YOU could be left in the dark

Government considers removing notices from local papers

06 October, 2020

Neighbours came together to fight a development in Little Green Street in Kentish Town

THE government stands accused of undermining democracy by radically reducing the chances of neighbours finding out about building projects that will affect them.

In a devastating blow for civic groups, ministers have suggested that developers can see their designs speed through the planning system without any public notice needing to be placed in local newspapers. Currently, lists of all developments in Camden are published, alerting people who care about how the area looks to what is going on near their homes and giving them a fair chance to respond.

This week, Camden said around 3,000 schoolchildren did not have access to a laptop for home learning during the coronavirus pandemic, just one significant sign that a digital divide has formed among those with the devices and resources to check things online – and those who still rely on the printed form.

Under the government’s planning white paper, currently part of a nationwide consultation process, developers are expected to seal greater freedoms on where they can build – and what they can build – without needing to cross hurdles at a local level.

The changes also include posting public notices only digitally, in a move which civic groups and planning experts say would seriously damage a community’s right to shape its neighbourhood.

Highgate Neighbourhood Forum chairwoman Alicia Pivaro has put together a working group of members to formulate a response to the government’s plans.

“I think it is very dangerous,” she said. “It will undermine democratic need for information to be out there in as many, accessible ways as possible. Planning applications should be in local newspapers. It is a tactile and enjoyable way to connect with communities.”

She added there was still a need for application details to be posted at the site under consideration, such as on lampposts.

Ms Pivaro said: “The city is a landscape for information. If advertisers can use it for adverts, then it should also be used for democratic information. Above all, any new planning laws must be thought through rigorously and not on the back of an envelope as a response to pressures from a particular political standpoint.”

Although we have a busy website and social media feed, surveys show the New Journal is still widely read in print across the borough and one of the main sources of information for residents.

Thousands have benefited from clear coronavirus information printed in the council’s updates. People often say they only hear about planning applications through the newspaper – by far the borough’s best read.

Roger Winfield, the chairman of Kentish Town Neighbourhood Forum, said: “I can’t see how removing notices from places like lampposts and newspapers and replacing them with online notifications will help. There has to be a balance between online and information in local newspapers. The most important thing is to ensure the whole of our community have access to information.”

In a double whammy for residents relying on clear information, the removal of notices would dent the already stretched finances of the local newspaper industry, hampering the prospects of investigations into development deals and potential planning scandals. Editors across the country have appealed for readers and MPs to respond to the government’s consultation.

This planned tower block for Swiss Cottage sparked a neighbourhood debate

Holborn and St Pancras MP Sir Keir Starmer’s office is looking into what his response will be, while Hampstead and Kilburn MP Tulip Siddiq has repeatedly called on the government to be wary of harming local newspapers during the pandemic.

Richard Osley, deputy editor of the Camden New Journal, said: “People often say that it’s hard to sneak anything through in Camden because its residents are so switched on and rightfully protective of their area. The paper has done its best to keep people informed and public notices have always been a huge part of that.”

“It may sound unbelievable to those who are accustomed to technology dominating every aspect of their lives, but not everybody has a computer or the fastest phone. The world is changing, but there is still a place for print at the moment.”

The consultation runs until October 29, before being reviewed with the White Paper then potentially going before parliament.

Lynne Anderson, News Media Association deputy chief executive, said: “Highly trusted local newspapers are by far the best platform for public notices. If the obligation to place planning notices in local papers was scrapped, millions of people, particularly vulnerable groups, would miss out on vital information which could have a dramatic impact upon their lives.

“The local news media sector is willing and ready to work with councils and other partners to explore new and innovative ways to take public notices to their audiences, through both print and digital platforms. But removing planning notices from local papers would undermine this partnership and leave millions of people in the dark, as well as cutting off a critical source of revenue for local papers at the worst possible time.”

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