Thursday, 20 May 2010

Getting the bit between their teeth

It seems that the Cabinet Office is on a roll, and is busy churning out major policy statements. The latest is the full text of the inter-party agreement on the policies to be pursued by the coalition (“The Coalition: Our Programme for Government”). The following are the main planning-related policies listed under Communities and Local Government.

As we already know, the government intends “rapidly” to abolish Regional Spatial Strategies and return decision-making powers on housing and planning to local councils. Instead, they propose to publish and present to Parliament “a simple and consolidated national planning framework covering all forms of development and setting out national economic, environmental and social priorities”. More detailed provisions will include giving LPAs new powers to stop ‘garden grabbing’. In the longer term, the government intends to “radically reform the planning system to give neighbourhoods far more ability to determine the shape of the places in which their inhabitants live, based on the principles set out in the Conservative Party publication Open Source Planning”.

The government intends to abolish the “unelected” Infrastructure Planning Commission and replace it with “an efficient and democratically accountable system that provides a fast-track process for major infrastructure projects”.

There is a commitment to maintain the Green Belt, SSSIs and other environmental protections, and to create a new designation – similar to SSSIs – “to protect green areas of particular importance to local communities” (as if present restrictions on development were not already too tight!). On the other hand, the government says it will promote “Home on the Farm” schemes that encourage farmers to convert existing buildings into affordable housing. There is also a rather vague commitment to creating “new trusts that will make it simpler for communities to provide homes for local people”.

Rather surprisingly there is a promise to give councils a general power of competence – something which New Labour promised in the past, but never delivered. Councils will also be allowed to return to the committee system, should they wish to, and councillors can breathe easy again with the abolition of the Standards Board regime.

Another rather vague proposal is to introduce new powers “to help communities save local facilities and services threatened with closure”, and to give communities the right to bid to take over local state-run services.

The 'green agenda' has not been entirely forgotten; the government will require continuous improvements to the energy efficiency of new housing and they will provide “incentives” for local authorities to deliver sustainable development, including for new homes and businesses.

We may perhaps be grateful that the document does not contain some other ideas which had previously been canvassed, such as a serious curtailment of the right to appeal against the refusal of planning permission or the introduction of a third party right of appeal. [Further reflection, however, suggests that these proposals have not been abandoned, as they form part of the programme set out in "Open Source Planning".] The Culture, Media and Sport section, incidentally, makes no mention of any intention to introduce the previously postponed Heritage Protection Bill.

It remains to be seen, when the Queen’s Speech is delivered next week, whether there will be a Planning Bill in the current parliamentary session. Early abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies and the abolition and replacement of the IPC (which will need to be tackled pretty quickly if it is not to delay major infrastructure projects which are in the pipeline) will require early primary legislation. Other proposals may take longer to work up, so the proposed changes may have to be dealt with in two instalments.

It will be interesting to see how all this works out.



  1. Can it be argued that Spatial Planning is now dead? All major political Parties had a take on new planning systems even the BNP had something to say. Nevertheless I must argue that the RTPI is lacking in vision and direction for the 21st century. If Bob Neil is to be restrained in his actions then we must counter with viable proposals, but the leadership of the RTPI are out of touch with the membership why not seek input from the grassroots? For example we can draw on the skills of those in housing and regeneration to become the next generation. These people have hands on experience but the RTPI argues that you need a Masters Degree to become a planner is promotes a `closed shop’ and is hardly egalitarian in this modern age.

  2. To answer 'Anonymous', first I never really understood what the term "spatial planning" was intended to mean, but there was definitely a need for strategic regional policy in some form, and its absence is going to cause problems. I do not propose to get into a discussion on RTPI policies and actions (or the alleged lack thereof).