Shaun Spiers’ final comments on ‘Local Planning for Sustainable Development’

I would like to thank everyone who contributed to this blog, and in particular Greg Clark for stimulating the comments and agreeing to respond.

Most of those responding to Greg Clark’s speech have huge experience of the planning system and are well aware of its shortcomings.  But it is clear from the 48 postings on the blog that CPRE supporters are deeply concerned about many aspects of the Government’s proposals.

Ministerial attacks on the planning system

Much of the concern clearly relates to the details of the Localism Bill.  But I think there is an underlying concern that relates less to the Bill or to anything Greg Clark said in his speech than to the mood music now accompanying the planning reforms.

A year or so ago there was a sense that a Conservative Government would devolve decisions on land use to local people, confident that if you trusted people they would generally do the right thing.  The planning system would regain legitimacy.  It would deliver necessary development, but it would also help improve people’s quality of life and the environment.

That may still be Greg Clark’s agenda – there was certainly much in his speech that was encouraging – but it less clear that it is an agenda shared collectively by the Government.  Recent interventions by Vince Cable, George Osborne and, most worryingly, the Prime Minister at the Conservative Spring Conference, have portrayed the planning system as an enemy of enterprise, holding the nation back and frustrating necessary development.  Is the business-driven agenda for planning likely to result in the countryside being littered with even more ‘large metal hangars which are,’ as Jeannine Barber says, ‘identical to any to be found anywhere in the world’?

The purpose of planning

This sort of thinking that became very familiar when Gordon Brown, as Chancellor, was seeking to make the planning system more ‘market-sensitive’ and better able to deliver economic development (rather than sustainable development, integrating social, economic and environmental ends).  John Farquhar responds to such thinking very well, starting with a quotation from Greg Clark’s speech: ‘”Businesses, domestic and overseas, often cite the current planning system as a barrier to growth” – it’s really only a barrier to their wish for the most profitable proposal.  In the public interest the planning system may, and indeed should guide the right kind of development to the right locations.’

Liz Akenhead also makes the case that the planning system is sometimes right to stop development: ‘perhaps we should look at what is happening in Ireland and in some cities in the United States, where developments lie empty and communities and countryside are ruined, and be grateful if our planning system has to some extent limited a pace of development that could have turned out to be unsustainable.’

But if we can welcome the fact that planning sometimes slows or stops damaging developments, it is probably does so less often than ministers suggest.  In particular, John Hoare casts doubt on whether planning really is holding up house building.  The volume house builders have large land banks and ‘build each year as many houses for private ownership as they can sell at the profit margins they require.’

Third party right of appeal

Blog contributors also express concern about the extent to which the planning system is already weighted in favour of developers, and fears that this may get worse as national guidance is weakened or abolished.  Brian Skittrall points out that local authority planning committees often debate not ‘the merits of the application, but … whether the Council has the budget to defend their decision at appeal’.  Dr Margaret Thompson says that the planning system seems to be ‘unfairly balanced in favour of developers’.  Gavin Rider says there is ‘no way of challenging a planning approval or holding local authorities to account if they do anything wrong’.

Several people express disappointment that the Government appears to have decided not to introduce a limited community right of appeal.  Even under the new system, developers are likely to get planning permission for schemes that are not in the agreed plan.  Greg Clark may be right to argue that there would be no need ‘to give communities the right to challenge development that is consistent with the plans that they themselves have debated and agreed’.  But as John Westmoreland says, that is not what is being proposed.  ‘There is a presumption that no developer will succeed in a case where some “material consideration” outweighs an agreed Local Development Plan or Neighbourhood Plan.’  That is, to say the least, unlikely.

Resources

Several contributions point to the need to support individuals and communities in engaging with the new system.  There will need to be some ‘noisy public conversations’, in Peter Cleasby’s words.  But as John King points out: ‘If plan making and decisions are to be devolved to communities there must be resources made available so that the local community is able to develop sound plans through extensive consultation.  The development industry has extensive resources … and this must be counterbalanced so that the process delivers neighbourhood plans that are supported by the community, and not just the most vocal or best resourced.’

The £3 million funding for advice is a welcome start, but given the number of neighbourhood plans it is hoped will be developed, and the need to engage ‘hard to reach’ communities, it is, as one contributor puts it, ‘a drop in the ocean’.

‘Bribes’

Finally, there is considerable concern about the purpose of incentives such as the New Homes Bonus (NHB) –‘bribes’, in the words of several contributors.  It would be interesting to hear Greg Clark’s response to Mary Neff’s concern that the NHB is incompatible with localism and ‘clearly intended to influence planning decisions.  Its purpose is to encourage local authorities to approve developments they would not otherwise have approved.’

I have tried to draw out a few themes from a very rich selection.  I could have highlighted concern about what was not in Greg Clark’s speech (how localism will help the country tackle climate change – Edward Falkirk); or whether the Government is returning to a ‘predict and provide’ approach to housing (John Drake); or how ‘to make sensitive and sustainable development of brownfield land viable for developers’ (Jeremy Hill); or many other issues.

I look forward to seeing Greg Clark’s response, and CPRE looks forward to continuing the debate as the Government’s planning reform agenda unfolds.

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