The Chancellor today has launched the second part of the Budget 2015 with his Productivity Plan . Yet despite his renewed rhetoric of trying to fix a ‘broken planning system’, itself sounding like a broken record, many of the reforms announced today herald further problems and delays. It also reinforces the death blow to localism and the reassertion of muscular centralist control of planning policy and delivery, with important implications for the way our planning decisions are made. Together they do little to solve the fundamental planning problems we face which includes a lack of homes, national infrastructure and lack of preparedness for environmental change which will merely fuel the disintegrated and ad-hoc short term nature of policy and decision making.
To some extent the measures are messing around with deck chairs on a ship in desperate trouble but equally some of the measures will have perverse outcomes. Worse they reinforce the silos that agencies are now working in within ever increasing complex governance arrangements that fail to join up with other social and environmental agendas that together are needed to deliver the kind of balanced growth and development we need.
Let us look at some of these proposals in more detail:
Government ability to take over the production of local plans (par 9.10)
There has rightly been concern over the length of time needed for the creation of local plans. There is again the well-rehearsed rhetoric over the need to speed up the planning system. What is forgotten is that planning is a difficult and controversial subject with many necessary legal safeguards and it is these that take up time. There is a real risk of trying to short cut the system and then have expensive legal judicial reviews afterwards. The plan production process will be greatly improved by a better resourced public sector.
A strengthening of the Duty to Cooperate (par 9.11).
This is clearly not new given its legal status in the Localism Act 2011 . Indeed, many local plans have fallen on the rocks with their failure to adhere to the duty to cooperate with planning inspectors robustly censuring plans which have failed in their duties primarily over meeting housing numbers. Thus the inclusion of this seems strange. However, it if means that issues such as flooding and climate change are seen as of equal importance involving objective assessments of their limits and thresholds then that would be an excellent step forward.
The focus on brownfield development (par 9.16)
This is clearly not new but it puts brownfield into a “ simplified planning zone ” which automatically secures easy planning for development. Whilst this does create greater certainty it will not have many developers jumping with joy as brownfield sites require significant investment in upfront costs which threatens viability which has strong support in the NPPF; another circle to square. Hence most developers favour greenfield sites as they are much cheaper to exploit and deliver.
In addition we must also remember that some of our most valuable wildlife sites are actually brownfield, so we should consider and assess sites on their merits for housing as well as their access to other infrastructure and services that make for liveable communities; not all brownfield sites are well located.
The current ‘one size fits all’ protection to greenbelt without any assessment of its role, remit and purpose to me seems highly problematic given that green belt could be improved to deliver greater environmental social and economic benefits including protecting new developments from extreme weather events. The green belt should be reviewed in major plan reviews every 10 years in terms of its fitness for purpose.
The right for major infrastructure projects including housing development to be fast-tracked through the Nationally Significant Infrastructure regime (par 9.17)
This is clearly an attack on ‘NIMBY’s. However, this takes such applications outside local determination with a clear snub directed towards localism. This builds on the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013 and is a worrying development depending on what developments are involved. For example the recent local decisions on fracking could easily fall victim to this enabling controversial energy developments to be decided and delivered against the wishes of local politicians and publics.
Permitted Development proposals to end to the need for planning permission for upwards extensions (par 9.21) (for a limited number of storeys up to the height of the adjoining building in the capital)
The government are using the permitted development regime to tinker again with planning in what I term a “bribe thy neighbour policy”. The most recent and controversial being the conversion of employment to residential use and the enabling of housing in the countryside from agricultural buildings. Both of these, by the way, often conflicting with approved plans for local authorities and running counter to sustainable development principles.
This time in London (unclear whether this will be extended nationally), we have building upwards to literally keep up with the neighbours with important implications for the cumulative impact which is poorly dealt with in planning matters, resulting in significant changes to the character of places and streetscapes and also imposing extra burdens of new housing without any concomitant increase in the services; educational, health and drainage etc that result. This places severe pressures on infrastructure and services and again these issues may be bypassed by the governments desire to simply build more houses. In passing I do wonder how many of these extra buildings will be purchased by foreign investors, thus doing little to actually satisfy housing need.
Penalties on local planning authorities in delivering decisions and plans on time (par 9.17)
Much of the rationale for this is based on evidence that planning is causing unnecessary delays in the development process. The key evidence is a report on Housing Supply and Planning Controls by Michael Ball 2010. Yet as indicated the delays can be caused by matters outside planners’ control when applicants do not submit all the necessary paperwork that enables prompt decisions to be made.
Furthermore, one should remember that cuts to local government have resulted in major losses to planning departments in terms of staff and thus with an upturn in planning activity there is always going to be problems in responding based on a skeleton crew. This is a lose-lose situation for planners and an excellent scapegoat for politicians when things are not happening as they should. There are consequences on cutting the local government planning services and the government should help support planning departments to do their jobs.
There is also a fundamental problem still facing the way local plans are approved when there are clear incentives for private developers and their agents to deliberately thwart a local plan process in much the same way as NIMBYs prevent planning applications being passed. Having sat through many local plan inquiries, I see the local authority planners being attacked on all fronts on their housing and employment projections with the developers knowing that a plan delayed is good news for them in being to get applications determined based on sustainable development criteria in the National Planning Policy Framework which opens doors to many sites that would never be brought forward in a plan.
Thus we see huge debates over the right formulas and statistical assumptions and data being used for the objectively assessed housing need. I have argued elsewhere that the formulas for such methods should be agreed at the outset and indeed there is a role for Department for Communities and Local Government to provide guidance and best practice on this.
Chancellor’s assumption that planning is currently failing to deliver
At the heart of these planning reforms is the rationale that planning is failing to deliver. This populist mantra is being used by the Chancellor to continually beat the beleaguered planner and planning profession and pass the blame of failed government policies that simply have not delivered. I provide a counter narrative in that this fails to recognise the simple fact that in today’s complex and messy world we need more and better planning to help build the houses and services, communities and environment we need.
The current Chancellors ‘pets’ are London and Manchester who secure extra funding within a ‘ devolution illusion ,by signing up to the devolution sound music (with strings and elected Mayor attached). But rather than pander to places that ad-hoc sign up to the devolution rhetoric there is an urgent need for better strategic plans such as the material published by Royal Town Planning Institute that address all areas of the UK rather than simply rewarding those areas who play to the government’s centralist tune.
A more joined-up approach to planning is far better than the incremental add-ons which create a disjointed planning system that it for ever being tinkered with. Far from producing the simplicity that Greg Clarke boasted about with the launch of the 55 page National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in 2012, we now have a planning system with nearly 1,000 pages of National Planning Policy Guidance to help clarify the vague NPPF and a whole string of add-ons through subsequent legislation and permitted development. It is a complete ‘omnishambles’.
The losers will be the public, the economy and environment in this rush to build
There is a risk of more local resentment and hostility which will lead to more legal challenges not less. It is a shame the politicians don’t speak to more planning professionals before they rush through their ill-thought plans, which will impose costs on us all in the long term. The politics of planning are necessary and important but treating the planning system as a political football is going to be an own goal with serious implications for our economy, society and environment.