Thursday, 7 April 2011

‘The Plan for Growth’

It has taken me some time to get to grips with this document, which was jointly published by the Chancellor and the Business Secretary to coincide with the Budget on 23 March. It is frankly rather difficult to pick the bones out of all the verbiage, and there is not much in the way of definite proposals for change, so much as promised future changes, the nature of which is not entirely clear at present and/or which are to be subject to ‘consultation’.

The government clearly wants to increase the proportion of planning applications approved and dealt with on time (i.e. within the 8-week, 13-week or 16-week period, as applicable) and they clearly accept that much more could be done to promote development by simplifying the planning application process and removing unnecessary delays. They are promising by the Autumn of this year to consult on a package of measures to streamline the information required to support planning applications, in order to make it simpler and more efficient.

I very much hope that this will include scrapping the requirement for Design & Access Statements in many cases (requiring them only for those larger developments likely to have a significant impact on their wider surroundings), and that the validation check-lists will be substantially cut down or abolished altogether, so as to simplify and greatly speed up the registration and initial processing of planning applications. There is in any case a need to amend s.62 of the 1990 Act so as to reverse the effect of the judgment in Newcastle Upon Tyne City Council v SSCLG, with consequent amendments to the definition of a “valid application” in the DMPO, (as I suggested here in “A much needed reform”, posted on Friday 13 August 2010). Applicants must be given a right of appeal against the unreasonable failure of an LPA to register a planning application and/or against demands for information which is not reasonably required. If the government is serious about making radical changes to speed up the planning system, then these are changes which are vital in order to shift the logjam in local planning departments.

The other way in which the government clearly intends to make the planning system more development-friendly is by a significant shift in ministerial policy. This can very easily be achieved by replacing previous policy advice with much more pro-development ministerial policy documents. A start has already been made with the ministerial statement made by Greg Clark on 23 March, which signals this sudden shift in government policy and has taken immediate effect. It is obvious that in replacing a whole raft of existing policy advice by a new National Planning Policy Framework, the government intends to adopt a much more pro-development stance, just as the Tories did in the early 1980s.

The Chief Planning Officer wrote to all local planning authorities on 31 March attaching Clark’s statement of the previous week and drawing attention to other proposed changes, including the government’s wish that LPAs should renegotiate s.106 agreements where these are threatening the viability of proposed developments.

Some indication of the general thrust of the promised National Planning Policy Framework is given in the ‘Plan for Growth’. Local authorities will be required to identify and plan for development, with a clear role for market signals in assessing the need for development. For example, if land prices are high for housing, this should inform an assessment of relative need and may indicate housing shortages. For development plans, deliverability will remain a key test of soundness. Local authorities seeking to introduce the Community Infrastructure Levy will be legally required to assess the economic viability of the rates they set. The Government intends to ensure through the NPPF that local authorities will not be able to adopt plans that block the delivery of required development by imposing unsupportable burdens on developers. So ‘localism’ will clearly have strictly prescribed limits!

The message to LPAs is unmistakable. The “powerful presumption in favour of sustainable development” will reinforce a pro-growth emphasis on plan-making. It will require local authorities to work promptly to accept applications that comply with up-to-date plans and national planning policies. Local authorities will be expected to have an up-to-date core strategy in place. Where local authorities do not have plans for development, or they are silent, out of date or indeterminate, this policy will mean that local authorities should start from the presumption that applications for development and job creation will be accepted. The Government intends to publish a draft presumption in favour of sustainable development in May, alongside details of how it proposes to integrate the presumption into national planning policy. So the message is clear - LPAs must get pro-development core strategies in place without delay, or face ‘planning by appeal’.

These proposals demonstrate that a major shift in the planning system can be achieved without resort to legislation. However, as I have previously pointed out, in order to be effective this substantial shift in policy must be backed up with a robust appeals system to prevent local planning authorities from ignoring or circumventing this shiny new ministerial policy. Like it or not, this is one aspect of the planning system which cannot be left to ‘localism’ if ministers are to have any hope of achieving their aim of promoting economic growth through development. Unfortunately, the government still seems to be facing two ways at once, as their ‘Plan for Growth’ also contains a commitment to “localise choice about the use of previously developed land, removing nationally imposed targets, while retaining existing controls on green belt land”.

Notwithstanding ministerial protestations to the contrary, ‘localism’ is simply not consistent with the philosophy of ‘growth through development’. There is a clear need for some sort of strategic planning at a county level at the very least, if not on a regional basis; otherwise the hoped-for freeing up of the planning system in order to promote growth simply won’t happen. I am hoping that, having been won over to the cause of development, the government will now propose amendments to the Localism Bill which will restore this missing element of strategic planning to the development plan system. The presently proposed ‘duty to co-operate’ is woefully inadequate, as nearly everyone seems to agree, and something more robust must be inserted in the Bill.

There’s more in the ‘Plan for Growth’, but I think that’s enough to be going on with. I will comment in a later post on proposals for Land Auctions, Financial Incentives, proposed revision of the Use Classes Order coupled with greater freedom to switch between use classes, and other possible changes to the GPDO, plus ideas for speeding up the processing of applications and appeals.


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