Thursday, 19 May 2011

Localism Bill – Report and Third Reading

I am sure I am it alone in having been totally confused by the 234 (or was it 236?) amendments put forward by the government, which were shoved into the Localism Bill this week with minimal debate. I suspect that the only way to make sense of them will be to read them in context when the Bill is reprinted in its revised form prior to its introduction in the House of Lords.

The most controversial addition to the Bill is New Clause 15, which will amend section 70(2) of the 1990 Act so as to provide that in addition to having regard to the development plan (so far as material) and to any other material considerations, a local planning authority must also take into account any local finance considerations, so far as material to the application. “Local finance consideration” means (a) a grant or other financial assistance that has been, or will or could be, provided to a relevant authority by a Minister of the Crown [i.e. the New Homes Bonus], or (b) sums that a relevant authority has received, or will or could receive, in payment of Community Infrastructure Levy. The RTPI has categorised this as “cash for sprawl”.

The clause will no doubt come in for strong criticism in the House of Lords, but one saving grace is that s.38(6) of the 2004 Act still puts the development plan first, so that the extent to which “any local financial considerations” will influence a decision will depend upon their being identified as material considerations which indicate that the matter should be determined otherwise than in accordance with the development plan. Planning lawyers will be rubbing their hands at the thought of the litigation which this is likely to generate.

I have made it clear in the past that this blog is not party political, but I nevertheless found myself in agreement again with the opposition spokesman, Jack Dromey, when he said in this week’s Commons debate that, on health, the Government gave not an inch in Committee, got it badly wrong and then paused for thought. On localism, the Government admitted in Committee that they had got it badly wrong. They committed to making changes and are now bringing forward 234 new clauses and amendments—more than the entirety of provisions in the original Bill. It is clear, he said, that the Secretary of State, a man with a closed mind, sat on his Ministers (“a fate too awful to contemplate”). Since the Committee stage the House had had additional changes to digest emerging from the Budget and those 234 new clauses and amendments. The sum total of the changes proposed is confusion, chaos and nothing short of a car crash.

Since taking power, Dromey continued, the Government have moved at breakneck speed to demolish the planning system and to rebuild it within a matter of months. The demolition is nearly complete, with the end of sensible regional strategic planning, including the folly of the abolition of the regional development agencies and their replacement with local economic partnerships with no powers and no money—all because the Secretary of State gets out the clove of garlic and the cross at the very mention of “regional”. Ending up in a pickle [geddit?], the Government have produced a system that is desperately unfit for purpose.

On New Clause 15, Dromey pointed out that the CPRE, RTPI and TCPA all condemn this proposal. To quote the CPRE : “We believe that this amendment would fundamentally distort the planning system by encouraging local authorities to base decisions on the financial implications rather than the spatial merits of the proposed development. It could also undermine the plan-led system and result in the spread of developments that go against the views of local people.” That view, said Dromey, is echoed across the planning community, and will soon be heard in Members’ surgeries up and down the country.

The new clause, Dromey observed, undermines the fundamental principle that planning decisions should be made in the long-term public interest, taking account of land use consequences and of what local people actually want, rather than being based on financial rewards for the decision-maker. The new clause represents a fundamental conflict of interests within planning.

Turning to the Government’s amended duty to co-operate in the formulation of neighbouring authorities’ Local Development Frameworks, Dromey pointed out that their most significant proposed change is to use the local development framework soundness test as a sanction to ensure that co-operation takes place. That sounds reasonable, except that it is a retrospective test. Unlike opposition amendments, the Government’s amendments do not specify what is meant by co-operation. It will be extremely difficult for any inspector to assess definitively whether there has been adequate co-operation. It could take several years to judge whether or not co-operation has been successful, a period we can ill afford given the pressing need to meet housing needs, to modernise our infrastructure and to respond to the increasing scientific evidence of climate change. In short, the Government’s proposed duty to co-operate, he said, remains essentially voluntary, does not specify a unified product in terms of plan or strategy, does not specify the issues to be dealt with, and does not create an effective boundary to shape the extent of co-operation. It is certainly true that the proposal in general is a step in the right direction, but this measure simply will not work.

Finally, Dromey turned to the National Planning Policy Framework, which has been trailed by the Government as a document that will streamline national planning policy guidance, but at every turn the Government have promised that something additional will be in the NPPF. The NPPF is clearly a document of vital importance to the proposed planning changes but, in the absence of a draft copy to read alongside the Bill, there is considerable uncertainty about what the NPPF will be, what it will look like, its status within the planning system and the process for its development and adoption. Promises from the Government that it will all be OK when the NPPF is published simply will not wash. It is wrong that such a major document, so relevant to the radical changes in the Bill, has not been published alongside it.

In conclusion, Dromey observed that the House had in front of them a blueprint for a planning system that will deliver nothing but chaos. It is full of contradictions in its objectives and overloaded with inconsistencies in the policies designed to deliver those same confused objectives. The Government claim that the Bill will deliver balanced economic growth and the housing we need, safeguard the environment and increase local engagement in planning. In reality, it dismantles the strategic planning system and the means to meet our housing need, deliver sustainable economic growth, meet our energy needs and capacity, safeguard our environment and mitigate climate change. While Ministers claim the Bill delivers localism, the sum total of their proposals are neighbourhood forums that will be thoroughly opaque, undemocratic and unaccountable, he said. Any hopes that the Government mean what they say about empowering communities, delivering on sustainable development or mitigating climate change are utterly discredited by their proposal to rig the planning system to make their regressive New Homes Bonus deliver housing in the wrong areas.

The only comment I can add to all of that is – “Hear! Hear!”


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