For any citizen wishing to wonder precisely why emasculation and possibly even evisceration should be a lifestyle choice, the process of planning in England is one of the most compelling arguments in favour. A recent experience of how this process works gives an insight into the extent to which the corruption and self-interest of the institutional mire is a cynical adjunct of the desire of the self-perpetuating political caste to throw the remainder of the populace into a state of perpetual apathy and subjection.
Existence in a civilised society requires the rights of the individual to do what the hell he or she wants to be tempered by the right of others to do the same. The utilitarian basis of good libertarian liberal philosophy applies to planning, whether it is a new railway line or whether it is a minimal extension to a house, codified through legislation, precedent, and a huge volume of allegedly-applicable policies.
It is always salutary to remember that election to public office does not automatically elevate the individuals concerned. Indeed, it often has the reverse effect. Somnolent councillors, anxious to pick up taxpayer-funded allowances, give the impression of not wanting to be there, unless they can score cheap political points. In the case of the particular meeting concerned, they were easy to come by, given the ineptitude and behaviour of the Chair, which will remain sub judice pending the outcome of an official complaint, but they did not give any confidence to citizens that this is anything more than a charade to allow the remaining Councillors to trouser yet more dosh to keep them in whichever poison maintains their IQ at rather lower levels than the average plankton.
When you add the venality of many local councillors to the behaviour of their executive staff, the best thing that a sane citizen should do in current circumstances is buy a Scottish island and a box set of The Good Life. The impact of pay freezes, imposed by central government, and the creeping pernicious corruption of outsourcing, imposed by local government mostly of the blue persuasion, means that the calibre of local government staff is at the very least questionable. Dealing with the public in a formal situation gives the scabrous combination of planning, legal and governance officers an opportunity to pretend to be both important and competent.
A toxic combination of the indequate and the ego-tripper, in other words. The councillors are only as good as the advice they are given, and many of them are insufficiently bright even to work out when the advice is at best perfunctory and at worst wrong. The mutual back-slapping that goes on is enough to induce a coma - the mutual protection in the face of maladministration and the potential for a reasonable perception of incompetence mutating into covert corruption. A civil servant who gave their Minister the quality of output that the average Planning Officer spews out would be on remedial measures before discharge. Yet they perpetuate a malodorous cartel of smugness.
Anyone who comments on a planning application is required to ground their views on a narrow set of criteria. The problem for the average, concerned citizen, is that each authority has a prolix, corporate-bollocks range of policies resembling computer-generated garbage, running into hundreds of pages of guidance, often contradictory, or vague, that gives both the officers and the councillors opportunity to stitch up the process between them. If in doubt, then the approach appears to be that of the thwarted toddler - denying that the policy or the procedure even exists, and "what does it matter, anyway?". It would be a much better use of resources to suggest to the general public that if you are not a bully, a liar or wealthy you might was well give up.
The presumption of current planning policy is that everything is desirable if it contributes to "development", which the idiots appear to regard as a synonym for growth. Nothing to do with appropriateness, the environment and community, or even the rights of others. This would be an admission of weakness and accountability. The process is managed to deliver the presumption of approval of even the most egregiously egotistical vandalism, usually nodded through by councillors house-trained by the officers into being worried about the costs of an applicant appealing to the Planning Inspectorate, rather than implementing their own council's declared policies.
This might not be quite so blatant a travesty of natural justice if there were proper challenges to the range of malpractice that the current process appears to sanction. The applicant has the right to go to a Planning Inspector if they don't like the decision - objectors, if they can demonstrate maladministration might receive £1,000 if they have the patience to pursue this through the byzantine self-serving council complaints procedures and reach the Local Government Ombudsman, but otherwise only have the option of the self-funded and risky judicial review process to restart the clock. Hardly a level process, especially given the restrictions on legal aid and the narrowing of criteria that the Coalition has presided over in the name of cost saving.
To watch local administration at work is dispiriting, as it appears to undermine every aspiration of left-liberal political thought. It does not provide an inspiration to bright, altruistic people to engage in local politics, as they will inevitably get sucked into the corrupt machine - often when trying to mitigate its malevolent tendencies. Rather it encourages direct action, sabotage and disruption, and a lack of the deference that these inadequate filth regard as their due rights.
Ironically, one of the recent meetings I observed was chaired by someone whose is allegedly a member of the Variety Club of Great Britain. Sadly, it wasn't Coco the Clown, whose intellect, integrity and moral compass would have dwarfed and shamed the participants in what turned out to be a charade and a rodomontade of atavistic denial, the perception that the process works for the interests of a small group, and further alienation of anyone with a sense of decency, justice and the requirements of the elected officials and their executive to behave in the interests of the wider citizenry. If I was angry about it, rather than unsurprised, this would be dangerous - instead it confirms that there is a need for a complete purge of the legacy of English corruption and deference.