Monday, 15 November 2010

Putting flesh on the bones

I have complained more than once in these pages that what we have had from the Coalition so far in relation to town and country planning is largely ‘government by press release’. That is now beginning to change, as concrete proposals to implement the government’s somewhat hare-brained schemes are gradually worked up into draft legislation and finalised policy statements. A major step in this process will be the publication of the so-called “Decentralisation and Localism Bill” which is now promised for 18 November. It is likely to be a weighty tome.

I will defer comment on the Bill until its contents become clear later this week, but one welcome aspect of the Bill is the proposal to allow councils to return to the committee system should they wish to, but presumably this will not apply in the twelve largest cities which are to have directly elected mayors (subject to local referenda to be held in May 2012). No doubt the details will become clear when the Bill is published.

In the meantime, DCLG has also published a timetable for the implementation of other elements in its plans derived from the Conservatives’ pre-election ‘Green Paper’ (“Open Source Planning” [sic]).

Unfortunately, the DCLG press release contained the usual waffle about ‘putting communities in charge of planning’, but among the other items mentioned (in no particular order) were

• the publication of the promised “National Planning Framework” in April 2012
• the continuation but (unspecified) ‘reform’ of the Community Infrastructure Levy
• the introduction by July 2011 of a Bill to implement Tax Increment Financing
• the preparation and introduction (between November 2010 and April 2012) of secondary legislation to give effect to the statutory changes set out in the ‘Decentralisation Bill’
• followed by a programme (running from November 2011 to April 2012) intended to “help communities understand their new rights and to encourage take-up of community ownership of assets and services”

What is not yet clear (but may perhaps be partially revealed by the new Bill) is the means by which the government intends to bring about ‘radical reform’ of the planning system so as “to give neighbourhoods much greater ability to shape the places in which they live, based on the principles set out in the Conservative Party publication ‘Open Source Planning’”.

One welcome move is the promise to develop proposals to streamline the process of producing development plans, although this also involves a backward step in that Inspectors’ recommendations will no longer be binding on Councils, so we shall be back to the unsatisfactory situation of Councils being able to ignore the objective judgment of Inspectors on unsatisfactory and unjustified policies, and in particular the Council’s failure to designate sufficient housing sites in the plan.

At the same time, the government intends to develop proposals (as yet unspecified) “to empower local communities to bring forward neighbourhood plans through the structure of either a parish council or a newly-formed neighbourhood forum”. The Department also intends “to work with a small number of places to develop neighbourhood plans using existing powers”. The timetable for these initiatives will run from now until April 2012. This programme is also intended to “empower local communities to bring forward their own plans for their neighbourhoods”. Funding is intended to be put in place by April 2011 to help town and parish councils to develop neighbourhood plans, and monitoring of the number of neighbourhood plans will start from April 2013, identifying the number of people involved in the process of their production (not very many, I suspect). There is more on these lines, but it is all a bit unclear and we shall have to await the relevant secondary legislation before we know how all this is likely to work out in practice.

This all sounds ‘fine and dandy’, but my natural scepticism leads me to wonder whether all this new-fangled ‘community involvement’ in planning will actually work. There are many, including me, who fear that it will just be a charter for the NIMBYs to rule the roost. Meanwhile, we shall be faced with continuing uncertainty as Councils struggle to get to grips with the new system. The planning system has been subjected to years of flux and change already and it looks as though it will have to endure years more of it. Frankly, it is not what the country needs.


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