By Professor Alister Scott at the School of the Built Environment at Birmingham City University

Alister Scott

The Chancellor is messing around with the deck chairs on the titanic planning system as it lurches inexorably towards floating icebergs with severe engine trouble and only a skeleton public sector crew struggling to keep it afloat.

The Chancellor today has launched the second part of the Budget 2015 with his Productivity Plan. Yet despite the renewed rhetoric of trying to fix a broken planning system, itself sounding like a broken record, many of the reforms announced today herald the death of localism and reassert the 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 and lack of preparedness for environmental change and will 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 resulting in more legal actions and bureaucracy not less. Worse they highlight the disintegrated nature of planning policy that fails 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 

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

This is clearly not new and already many local plans have fallen on the rocks of failing to adhere to the duty to cooperate. 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

This is clearly not new but it puts brownfield into a “simplified planning zone” which automatically secures easy planning for development. Yet many developers, when local planning authorities implement this policy, claim that it is not deliverable on viability grounds, so the issue revolves around the cost and investment needed to make many brownfield sites deliverable. 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 right for major infrastructure projects including housing development to be fast-tracked through the Nationally Significant Infrastructure regime

This is clearly an attack on ‘NIMBY’s. However, this takes such applications outside local determination with a clear two fingers directed towards localism. This builds on the Infrastructure Act 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 delivered against the wishes of local politicians and publics.

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Permitted Development proposals to end to the need for planning permission for upwards extensions (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 with planning. 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 the prospect of building in basements and now building upwards to literally keep up with the neighbours. I see this a bribe thy neighbour extension policy with important implications for the cumulative impact which is poorly dealt with in planning matters and how that changes the character of places and streetscapes and also imposes 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 satisfy housing need.

Penalties on local planning authorities in delivering decisions and plans on time

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 planers 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.

Chancellors 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 would fail the test of soundness that local plans currently have to go through to become approved.

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Alister Scott

Alister Scott

School of Property, Construction and Planning at Birmingham City University