Watching over us

Basildon Council have announced they will be starting a six month trial of the use of drones to help them with planning enforcement cases: Council agree trial to use aerial drones for planning enforcement. During the course of this trial there will be a public consultation. This service will be provided by Thurrock Council whose Environmental Protection Service have been using drones for several years*.

This is how the trial was discussed by the Neighbourhoods and Public Spaces Committee. The justification for the trial was that with COVID-19 physical distancing restrictions likely to be in place for some time, drones would enable surveillance of suspected planning breaches that would not be otherwise possible at ground level. Fair play to the councillors who were raising concerns about possible breaches of General Data Protection Regulation. Also to the councillor who asked why this wasn’t being discussed by the planning committee which to us, would seem to be the logical forum to discuss the use of drones for planning enforcement.

There are a couple of points we’d like to make about this trial of the use of drones for planning enforcement.

Firstly, it’s likely this technology will be to snoop on people who may be building a larger than permitted conservatory or outbuilding. The kind of stuff that may annoy some neighbouring curtain twitchers but in the general scheme of things is pretty small scale. What immediately struck us was the f***ing irony of a council that’s forcing through a masterplan for Basildon town centre that will pepper it with high rise apartment blocks that no one wants, using drones to crack down on someone whose new conservatory may be just a foot over the permitted size. A council that wants to inflict these monstrosities on the town centre has no right to use drone technology to assist them in getting arsey with someone who hasn’t followed the planning code to the letter. You seriously couldn’t make this up if you tried!

Secondly, if Basildon Council decide after six months that the use of drone technology has been beneficial to their planning enforcement operations and adopt it permanently, what safeguards are going to be in place to stop mission creep? Enforcement of physical distancing measures in the new (ab)normal? Picking on residents doing a bit of guerilla gardening to provide some food for themselves? The list of what council snoops could end up using drone technology for is potentially, a worryingly long one.

Suffice to say, we’ll be keeping an eye on how all of this develops…

* Thurrock residents may be somewhat surprised to learn that through the use of drone technology, the Environmental Protection Service at the council are probably aware of all of the major flytipping hotspots in the borough. What Thurrock residents would like to hear is how the council intend to use all of this knowledge to actually nail the problem of flytipping once and for all. We’ll wait…

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