Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Straws in the wind

I get the distinct impression that, even with the Localism Bill currently going through parliament, there is a sea-change coming in the coalition government’s attitude to town and country planning. This may presage a significant departure from the course which was apparently being followed by the government in reliance on the Tories’ pre-election policy document - ‘Open Source Planning’, judging by Uncle Eric’s speech to the CBI a couple of days ago and various pre-budget ‘leaks’ and other ministerial remarks, including some made even by the Prime Minister. The general approach of the government, developed in the Conservative party’s final years in opposition, appeared to be rather anti-development, and brought joy to hearts of the NIMBYs. Now, we are getting pronouncements which sound much more like those of Thatcher and Heseltine post-1979, promoting the idea that development could and would be the engine of economic recovery.

These latest ministerial aper├žus are not entirely consistent with the apparent approach foreshowed in the early months of the coalition’s tenure, and so it may take a while for what is in truth a fairly significant U-turn to be accomplished. It remains to be seen whether the change of approach is reflected in government amendments to the Localism Bill, either at Report stage in the Commons or as the Bill progresses through the House of Lords. By whatever method it is managed, it seems that those who saw Part 5 of the Localism Bill as the means by which development proposals could be forestalled at the local level may be sorely disappointed.

In his speech to the CBI, Pickles repeated in terms the old mantra of “the presumption in favour of development” coupled with criticism of the admittedly slow and labyrinthine development plan process. Could we be about to see the end of the ‘plan-led’ system and a return to planning by appeal? If so, some of the ideas canvassed in ‘Open Source Planning’ and apparently embraced by ministers only a few short months ago may have to be ditched. The planning appeals system, for example, far from being emasculated as was apparently intended, may have to be beefed up to cope with appeals against recalcitrant local authorities who fail to respond to the Secretary of State’s new vision of the freedom to develop without the ‘drag anchor’ (as he put it) of the planning system.

Perhaps Pickles and his merry men should make a start by dusting off Circulars 9/80, 22/80, 15/84 and 14/85 and re-publishing them in modern form.


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