Thursday, 17 February 2011

Localism Bill – Committee starts to debate planning clauses


One of the problems of writing this blog is that it gets put on one side whenever fee-earning work demands my attention. So the Public Bill Committee has reached the planning clauses in Part 5 of the Bill ahead of me (except for the enforcement provisions, on which I have already commented).

Clause 89 was reached on Tuesday (15 Feb). This is the clause that will abolish regional strategies. I cannot do better than to quote several passages from the speech of Jack Dromey, in which he said: “It is with some bewilderment that my colleagues and I have watched the unfolding chaos that has come about as a consequence of the Government proposals. I have no doubt that many on the Government Benches share our sense of foreboding. Certainly, almost every organisation that we have spoken to about the proposed changes is of the same opinion; the Government have thrown the planning system into utter chaos. We should not be surprised because, as we understand it, that is what Ministers intend. In their vocabulary, chaos is a good thing and they believe that chaos is desirable in pursuit of the Government’s public policy objectives. If chaos is the objective, Ministers should be congratulated on their delivery. The proposed changes to the planning system under the Bill and the actions taken by the Secretary of State to scrap the regional spatial strategies will deliver chaos by the bucket load.

“The Bill, as it stands, will simply not deliver on many of the Government’s publicly stated objectives, which will harm the public interest in several areas. The Government claim that the planning reforms will contribute to economic growth, lead to increased levels of house building and empower local people. It is clear, however, from the evidence given to the Committee (to which the Committee should listen) that without significant amendments, the Bill will lead to stasis in the planning system, stifle economic growth and house building, threaten advances on climate change and the protection of the environment, empower the few, not the many, institutionalise inequality in the planning system and downgrade democracy, particularly the role of democratically elected local councils.

“The abolition of the regional spatial strategies and, crucially, how it has been handled has thrown the planning system into complete confusion. It has created a vacuum at the heart of the planning system that will not be filled until the Bill receives Royal Assent, which could be as late as 2012. The way the current planning system has been torn up for the proposed new system has proved nothing short of a disaster for house building. The proposed replacement will not offer the necessary framework to resolve greater-than-local issues. The RSSs provided crucial, much-needed guidance to local authorities on issues that cross local authority boundaries; in particular, housing, infrastructure, energy supply and waste management. These are all larger-than-local issues that are hugely important to everyone, locally and on a sub-regional basis, and they require co-ordination at a level above that of the council to guarantee effective and efficient provision. The RSSs provided that much-needed co-ordination, yet the Government have scrapped them without putting in place any meaningful transition mechanisms.

“The new system that we are putting in place must deliver on the issues that require strategic planning. Those issues include housing needs, climate change mitigation and adaptation—in particular, flood risk—economic development including retail needs, energy needs and capacity, biodiversity, natural resource use including waste management, and transport. The overwhelming body of evidence that came before the Committee in relation to all those issues—everyone was saying the same thing—was that without effective sub-regional planning, they would be immensely difficult to deliver.

“Adequate infrastructure provision is under threat by the removal of the RSSs and, crucially, the weak duty to co-operate contained in the Bill. Again and again, fears have been expressed—not just by all those to whom I have referred, but by local councillors, developers and authorities—about how to co-ordinate infrastructure projects at the sub-national level. With the abolition of the RSSs, which played an important role in co-ordinating between the national and local level for infrastructure provision, how are local authorities to assess larger-than-local needs and provide adequate infrastructural access? It is clear that the duty to co-operate in the Bill as it stands is a poor and insufficient replacement to the co-ordination offered to councils by the regional spatial strategies.”

As Nick Raynsford observed later in the same debate, this chapter in this part of the Bill proposes to do fundamental damage to a planning system which has, for better or for worse served this country well since 1947. The system has been painstakingly evolved over a period of 60 years, from its beginnings in 1947, through changes that both major political parties have introduced and together have worked to make successful. That has been put at risk by a view of planning based on a year zero approach: everything that went before is wrong; everything that is to come from now on is right. That year zero approach to planning is precisely the kind of thinking that will cause serious upheaval and damage in the short term, and result in this Administration being known as the one that will have delivered the lowest level of housing of any five-year period since the end of the war.

Nick Raynsford continued, “We have a situation where a new Government have come in, pledging to build more homes, but actually acting in a way that has damaged confidence in the market. They are now driving through a series of ill-thought-out proposals to change the way in which the planning system operates without any testing. For people who believe that their view is right and that others are wrong, one would think that they might have tried to test, in one area or another, whether it works. It is based on heroic, and misguided, assumptions. It is a huge gamble at the expense of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people, whose homes depend on a decent planning system. I fear that the consequence will be a long period of time in which we do not produce the homes that the country needs.”

In case anyone is in any doubt about it, this blog is non-political. But I do care about our planning system, and so I find myself in substantial agreement with what Jack Dromey and Nick Raynsford said in the debate.

© MARTIN H GOODALL

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