Our planning system can perhaps best, if we are being honest, be described as dysfunctional. It's not working particularly well and has become the plaything of central government both in Cardiff Bay and in Westminster. Routine planning business is handled at a local level - however if planning proposal is rejected or a planning inquiry comes out against a proposed development then there is more often than not another appeal (or perhaps more than one) to Cardiff.
It could be said that the Welsh government is following the old and much criticised by many Welsh Office model - if in doubt approve. In recent years this has, where there had been concern or doubt or outright opposition (on the ground) to planning proposals - often controversial planning decisions have been rubber stamped by the Labour in Wales Government in Cardiff (while many things may have changed this mirrors pretty much exactly what went on when Wales was run by the old Welsh Office).
In the case of the controversial proposed M4 across the Gwent levels the Welsh government has already made up (and declared) its mind before the public enquiry even began let alone delivered its ruling. Even though this publicly declared position runs contrary to many aspects of public policy for Cymru / Wales. The housing developments proposed around Cardiff (mostly on greenfield) sites are being resisted by local residents, despite the best efforts of Cardiff City Council (and the Labour in Wales government) to railroad them through regardless.
Westminster ministers during the heady days of the Con Dem coalition openly favoured changing the planning rules (in England) to boost house building to 'revive the economy'. The Labour in Wales Government in Cardiff naturally favoured changing to planning rules in Wales to ‘tilt the balance in favour of economic growth over the environment and social factors’. This is pretty much the same thing and the same end result - the weakening of the already weak planning system and at a more fundamental level the removal or overriding of democratic consent or meaningful democratic oversight from the planning process.
Ironically that dubious intention / sentiment (in Wales at least) was perhaps aimed specifically at overturning those few occasions of late when our Local Authorities have rejected some developments (often at the behest of concerned local residents) rather than simply putting economic needs ahead of economic, environmental benefits and community cohesion. The green fields around our urban centres are doubly vulnerable to obsessive house building and over development - particularly as there is no designed Greenbelt land in Wales (beyond the occasional green wedge).
In the last 15 years south Cwmbran has merged with the top end of Malpas and plans are afoot to fill in the gap between Griffithstown (south Pontypool) and Cwmbran. This may have added some additional affordable housing (but not enough) at the cost of creating a strip of a continuous urban environment from south Newport through to Abersychan and New Inn. This not only failed so solve the shortage of affordable housing, it also did little to improve the quality of people's lives and added nothing by way of transport infrastructure beyond roads (something that added to already grim (at times traffic congestion).
Over the medium to long term the continuation of obsessive house building regardless of its impact is fundamentally bad news for those residents of south Monmouthshire, or Torfaen, who fought the plan and the good citizens of Abergavenny who fought to retain the livestock market. Not to mention those concerned residents of Carmarthen who have worried about the impact of over large housing developments or the residents of Holyhead who opposed a planned new marina development and those residents in Cardiff fighting the construction frenzy that threatens to envelope Cardiff and its surroundings.
We need to think outside the box, and look seriously look at the release of public land as self-build plots for affordable homes, to buy and to lease, and allow housing associations to build their own high-quality prefabricated homes as the Accord Housing Association successfully does in Walsall. This would also break the link between housing companies making fat profits and local government approved over development in and around our communities.
Our communities have been consistently (and continue to be) ill served by the planning system, by our local authorities (via the flawed system of Unitary Development Plans) and more recently by the Labour in Wales Welsh Government in Cardiff. With increasing pressure from over development community cohesion is under threat, along with increased demand on overstretched local amenities, our NHS and our green spaces.
An opportunity to address the shortage of affordable housing, to encourage more small-scale renewable energy projects, and to actively support small businesses in relation to the Planning Bill was missed. The process of actually addressing the flawed LDP (Local Development Plan) system, which does not deliver for local communities and fails to serve our national interests is long overdue, especially in relation to the structure of devolved government in Cymru / Wales.
Perhaps before constructing large numbers of new houses which often fail to tackle local housing needs we needs to take a long hard look at the number of empty properties something that remains largely unaddressed in many of our communities (a full Cymru / Wales wide survey to establish the levels of vacant properties within our communities is long overdue).
We need a planning system that takes account of local housing needs, the environment (and seeks to create protected green belt land around and within our large and small urban communities). We also need to holistically plan and act for the whole of Wales – something that is just not happening at present.
All of these things are something we just won’t get without fair funding for Wales, a full range of powers to shape and move our economic leavers. Never mire than now have we needed to change Wales - that change will not come unless Labour in Wales lose power at the next set of National Assembly elections. We should remember that considering our nation has been effectively ruled locally by Labour in Wales for one hundred years that day can not come soon enough.