KEITH KNAGGS, who recently stepped down as leader of Ryedale District Council, exercises his new freedom to speak his mind

IT is a truth universally acknowledged that we need a planning system… but hate the one we’ve got. Even the flock of agents, lawyers and consultants who make a good living out of the system’s complexity and uncertainty are unhappy.

To some extent it’s inevitable. The arguments we see reflect the contradictions in the popular mind. We want the things that only development and growth will pay for – providing the development is somewhere else. We want to do as we please with our own home – yet be able to object to our neighbour’s planning application.

But it’s not inevitable that planning should be an obstacle course, weighted against anything new or different. The original idea was that you should look at the local plan and know with reasonable certainty whether your planning application would succeed or fail and what conditions to expect. What a laugh. York last produced a statutory development plan in 1956. Ryedale is sleep-walking into a two-tier system in which small applications for local people and local builders are subject to the full rigour of the old local plan, whereas large ones backed by more fire-power than the council can muster “have to be approved” because the council can’t demonstrate a five-year supply of housing land.

We do have particular problems here. Any development has an environmental impact, which can affect the positive reasons why people want to visit or live in Ryedale. So the “Not in my back yard” approach has some objective reasonableness in, for example, Ampleforth or Hovingham.

But it can be selfish. In England in recent decades, we’ve only built half the number of homes that were built in France, relative to population. The young person with an average income has almost no chance of getting a home of their own except by renting.

Not too much Ryedale can do about a national problem, you might say. But we can do something about a local problem, which is the loss of trust in the planning authority. Because of Wentworth Street, the livestock market and all that, there has been a loss of reputation – right or wrong, that’s happened. Further, there has been a loss of reputation because of inconsistencies in planning enforcement and alleged failures to reply to correspondence. This is fiercely denied but many councillors receive regular complaints about it.

The council’s reputation with business is good – until it comes to planning. Meanwhile, the council is struggling to deliver a local plan despite the heroic efforts of the staff involved, who provide professionalism on a shoe-string. Bit by bit, the planning authority is losing its franchise. Some of this is grossly unfair, but the loss of reputation and moral authority will not be overcome by pretending it hasn’t happened. My own recent history demonstrates that I’m keen to face up to reality even when unpalatable to me personally.

So what to do? Here are some thoughts.

It is always claimed that the planning authority prepares professional planning recommendations without political bias or interference. The only instance of overt political interference I can remember was the Terrington cemetery case in the mid 1990s. So why not make it obvious and credible by setting up development control as a separate trust, safeguarded by independent trustees?

The planning committee of the council could still take the decisions, providing democratic accountability, but would no longer employ the staff on whose work it sits in judgment. The difference between the local plan, which is the council’s political and statutory responsibility, and individual planning decisions becomes clear. The problem of handling the council’s own planning applications disappears. The issue of trust is resolved by putting it into a trust.

What else could be done? How about applying some basic business thinking to the processes? Use planning agreements, whereby an application will be brought to committee by a certain date. Pay a fee for that but get your money back if the deal isn’t honoured. Start treating enforcement as a properly-resourced customer service, not just a regulatory task.

Use the New Homes Bonus creatively to do something significant.

Get behind the relocated livestock market because although there is more time than I once thought, this project will die without real progress this year. Decide in the next few weeks, without spending huge sums on lawyers, whether or not Wentworth Street is still a runner in technical planning terms.

If we’re really serious about creating an environment conducive to jobs and business growth, set up rural business development zones free from community infrastructure levy for a period.

Most of all, be realistic about whether Ryedale can continue in anything like its present form in a time of continuing funding cut-backs. The Local Government Association, of all people, says that West Somerset, another small rural council, will cease to be viable.

This is Ryedale, so a queue of people will form to say why this idea and that idea is impractical, undesirable and unwelcome. Ryedale House seems to work in slow motion at the best of times. If you have the interests of the community at heart, though, we do need some new thinking, and decisions, not drift.