Wednesday, 30 March 2011

U-turn if you want to

When I wrote a piece entitled “Straws in the Wind” last Tuesday, predicting that there was a sea-change coming in the coalition government’s attitude to town and country planning, I had no idea that what might be described (if somewhat tastelessly) as a tsunami was about to hit us the very next day.

I do not recall seeing any suggestion as to what lay behind this seismic shift in government policy, but I strongly suspect that there has been growing panic within the coalition at the disappointingly low growth figures (“Down, down, down” as Ed Miliband gleefully put it in the Budget debate last week), and somebody – perhaps even Michael Heseltine himself, as the government’s eminence gris – may have suggested that the government should rev up the bulldozers and get the concrete mixers turning, in the same way as Maggie Thatcher had done, with Heseltine’s help as Secretary of State, after coming to power in 1979. A similar relaxation of planning restrictions was promulgated at that time in circulars such as 9/80, 22/80, 15/84 and 14/85. It was only after Nicholas Ridley’s departure as Secretary of State later in the 1980s that the machinery was again put into reverse, and the concept of ‘plan-led’ development then became the new orthodoxy.

As one or two others have already pointed out, there is one important difference between then and now – the availability of credit. The banks either can’t or won’t lend to builders to finance speculative development schemes, nor are they lending to prospective house-buyers, mainly because most of these borrowers can’t put down a large enough deposit. The days of the 100% mortgage seem to be gone for good, or at least for a very long time to come. The combined effect of this continuing credit crunch is that houses are neither being built nor bought in sufficient quantities to make much difference to overall economic growth, and it seems unlikely that a relaxed planning regime will change that to any extent. The chorus of criticism which various ministers have directed at town planners in recent weeks (much to the indignation of the RTPI and its members) is therefore largely mis-directed as an analysis of the underlying reason for the continuing sluggishness of the property market. Local authority planners must, on the other hand, accept that their attitudes and antics, especially over the registration and processing of planning applications, has provided plentiful ammunition for their critics.

There is bound to be much uncertainty over the detailed implementation of the changes foreshadowed last week, and we shall have to await further announcements from De-CLoG (or maybe the Business Secretary or the Chancellor, both of whom seem to be perfectly happy to trample all over Uncle Eric’s turf) as to precisely how these various ideas are to be put into practice. However, the importance of Greg Clark’s ministerial statement last week should not be overlooked; it has all the force and effect of a ministerial circular, and is very similar in its message to the circulars put out by Michael Heseltine in the early 1980s. Out of all the verbiage which spewed out of Whitehall last week, that piece of paper is by far the most important.

Meanwhile, what of ‘localism’? Having nailed their colours rather firmly to the mast, the government cannot be seen to abandon the concept of localism, but the fact remains that the new course on which they have now embarked is hardly consistent with the various notions of localism which they had previously been peddling. I suspect that the opportunity may be taken to make rather more extensive ‘concessions’ to critics of the Localism Bill in the form of amendments designed to restore an element of strategic planning, which had been the most conspicuous casualty of the localism agenda, coupled with a corresponding watering down of ‘neighbourhood planning’, by raising the minimum number of people who can ask to be registered as a neighbourhood, and hedging round the formulation of neighbourhood plans with various restrictions and qualifications. On the other hand, allowing businesses to combine together to become neighbourhoods for this purpose was a clever wheeze, which will further assist the government to achieve the change of direction on which it has now embarked.

Planning law and practice has been in a continuous state of flux ever since I started to specialise in the subject over 30 years ago, but I cannot recall a change of approach so sudden and unexpected as this one. Whilst I do not expect the results, in terms of the volume of development and overall economic growth, to be as significant as ministers apparently hope to achieve, it certainly represents a welcome freeing up of the planning regime, which I for one am happy to see. As I observed in an earlier post, it needs to be backed up with a robust appeals system, and the government will need to ensure that PINS has the resources it needs to cope with the likely increase in appeals. Ministers must certainly abandon previous suggestions of reducing the appeal process to a mere desk-based ‘checking’ exercise.


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