Friday, 25 June 2010

The future of Development Plans

We were promised further details of the Government’s plans to scrap regional planning. This seems to have come in the form of an address by the Planning Minister, Bob Neill, to the National Planning Forum on 23 June.

What he actually said was typically full of political hyperbole and largely unenlightening as to the detail (due, no doubt, to a great deal of head-scratching still going on inside DCLG). Unsurprisingly, Neill reaffirmed the government’s determination to abolish Regional Spatial Strategies, although no date seems to have been given, and this will presumably have to await the passage through parliament of the promised ‘decentralisation’ Bill.

The only clue as to what is to be put in place of the current system were gnomic utterances about communities coming together to “take responsibility for solving their own local challenges in a way that make sense for them”. Local plans, Neill said, will be “more transparent and spell out how they will benefit the community. Communities will help develop proposals for their neighbourhoods, rather than be consulted on 'options' that have already been prepared.” He also said that local, long-term plans will become more important. “If a new development is in the plan that is supported by local people, a proposal in line with that plan will be approved unless there are significant reasons against it,” he added.

This is the first clue we have had that what is proposed goes beyond mere scrapping of regional planning, and will involve an overhaul of the whole Development Plan system. This was inevitable in view of the pivotal role that regional planning plays in the current system. The plan-making process we have at the moment can’t go on working if you remove the key element (the Regional Spatial Strategy, or its predecessor – Regional Planning Guidance) on which the rest of it depends. So it looks as though we are going to have yet another complete overhaul of the Development Plan system.

In some ways, the scrapping of the system set up under the 2004 Act will be welcome, as the byzantine complexity of the process has resulted in the various elements of the Development Plan emerging with glacial slowness. But whether the system that ministers intend to put in its place will be any better is open to question, especially if it is to be NIMBY-driven at the local level.

The Government's answer to this appears to be financial 'incentives' to LPAs and their voters to accept development in their areas which, left to their own devices, they would rather not have. This could act both as a carrot and a stick, as local authorities could possibly find themselves starved of grant funding from central government if they refuse to allow building at levels which would qualify for the proffered financial incentives. It sounds uncannily like the recently-scrapped housing and planning delivery grant.


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