Mark Scoot, head of planning and development at DTZ in Birmingham, looks at the implications of the Planning Bill on infrastructure in the region.
Among the varying Government initiatives to support business and the economy, more national guidance on planning policy will probably not be viewed by many people as top of the agenda.
However, in granting Royal Assent to the Planning Bill last week, the Government thinks major projects will be easier to deliver and will promote the green agenda as a direct result of the Bill – which it claims could provide much needed jobs.
Major projects could find securing planning consent easier and quicker as schemes will be determined against a series of policy aims rather than as a result of lobbying by various interest groups. The Government claims the Bill will help to address the economic problems by forming a quick, predictable and fair planning system. I’m sure most parties will agree with this aim and also wonder why it has taken so long to realise the current system doesn’t always achieve these aims which are so important for giving businesses confidence.
The Act establishes an integrated planning system for deciding major infrastructure schemes that it hopes will determine planning applications within one year. Before this, however, another series of National Planning Policy Statements setting out national infrastructure priorities in areas such as energy, waste, road and rail transport will be prepared. Schemes will then be determined by the Infrastructure Planning Commission using these Statements for guidance. However, the Policy Statements will not be finalised for at least two years and the Independent Commission has yet to appoint staff.
Given there are inevitably going to be competing options for most major infrastructure projects in terms of locations and limited financial resources available, it seems unlikely any major projects will be delivered under this system in the short term and their chances of creating major job opportunities to address the downturn is therefore limited. It is also not clear how key issues facing Birmingham and the region such as the need for a metro system and improved links to and through the Black Country will be addressed by the system and whether extra resources can be made available to support key projects. Other key infrastructure such as urban extensions to meet the forecast housing requirements of the region will not be covered by the new system.
At the same time, the Bill formally introduces the Community Infrastructure Levy – a tariff based system which grows out of the much criticised land tax models promoted in the earlier draft versions of the Bill. Under the system, each local authority will need to plan their infrastructure needs over the next decade or so and to then also estimate how much development will come forward over that time. This will then be used to calculate how much each development should pay to fund infrastructure in the area over time.
While the objectives of the Bill are logical and likely to get support, the recent downturn in building activity and value falls highlight how difficult it will be for authorities to introduce flexible systems that secure funding needed for development without stopping schemes going forward as a result of essentially over taxing them.
In addition, it is not clear how authorities can possibly accurately estimate the total costs of infrastructure in their areas over time – the variations even in new housing numbers through the West Midlands authorities shows this.
At the same time another review of the planning system has been published and recommends a range of measures that may well be of more practical use for the vast majority of planning applications including better training and support for councillors.
So overall, while the aim of speeding up the system for major projects should be supported, it is hard to see how in these testing market conditions the Bill can help businesses and developers to make quicker applications. Perhaps though, in the short term, the fall in planning applications will allow authorities to re-deploy staff into other areas such as preparing up-to-date local planning policies so the vast majority of businesses that do come across the planning system can have their applications determined quickly and in accordance with clear policies.