Thursday, 4 August 2011

This Government IS for turning

I wrote a piece a few months ago entitled “U-turn if you want to”. Since then, there seems to have been a growing sense of panic in Whitehall over the state of the economy, and ministers are clearly worried that things are not going the way they had hoped. Recent jitters over US government debt have done nothing to help, not to mention a continuing sense of crisis in the Eurozone, which could yet engulf all of us in further economic mayhem.

All the indicators are pointing the wrong way, and so ministers are looking for any and every means at their disposal which might boost the economy. The planning system is seen as one of these potential tools. We saw this in the announcements made at the time of the budget in late March, and events since then have only served to lend a greater sense of urgency to ministerial hopes of stimulating the economy through development. De-CLoG has only a limited role in this; the desperate drive for growth is coming from No.10 and the Treasury, supported by the Business Secretary.

The problem that Eric Pickles and his ministerial mates at De-CLoG are facing is that they were appointed to pursue the Tories’ pre-election ‘localism’ agenda, which is now looking increasingly irrelevant in face of the clear change of direction which is being signalled from Downing Street. As I said they would, the government has now embarked on a pro-development agenda very similar to that pursued by Margaret Thatcher and Michael Heseltine in the early 1980s. The means by which they expect to achieve this is exactly the same as that which was used before, and relies on central government effectively telling local planning authorities that they must grant planning permission for housing and other development whether they like it or not. Ministerial appeal decisions will back this up and will ensure that local councils fall into line.

There are plenty of signs of the direction in which the government is now heading in relation to planning and development. The presumption in favour of ‘sustainable’ development (whatever ‘sustainable’ means in this context – not a lot, I suspect), the drafting of the National Planning Policy Framework and various other administrative actions and initiatives are all evidence of this. ‘Localism’ is effectively dead in the water, and I bet the government now bitterly regrets having pinned that title on their local government and planning bill. With this albatross around their corporate neck, ministers have little choice but to continue paying lip service to the concept, and the Bill will eventually reach the statute book, but it seems increasingly likely that ‘neighbourhood planning’ may prove to be still-born, having been effectively killed off by all the rules and procedures in the Bill which will have to be followed to put it into effect, not to mention the very limited role it will have in the overall planning system. Any communities who want to participate in neighbourhood planning are going to need stamina and determination to fight their way through all the red tape. Many probably won’t bother.

Meanwhile, just to add to the misery of the NIMBYs and the BANANAs [= “Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone”], it is becoming increasingly clear that the prospective abolition of Regional Strategies, and their abandonment where they had not yet been formally adopted, is likely to make very little difference to the outcome of development proposals, particularly for major housing developments. In common with a number of other commentators, I pointed out that the housing need which underpinned the Regional Strategies was not going to go away just because Regional Strategies are set to disappear. The evidence base from which RSS housing figures were calculated is still there and is still an important material consideration in the ultimate determination (on appeal if necessary) of development proposals. Several recent ministerial appeal decisions have demonstrated this.

Some local politicians have seized on the prospective abolition of regional strategies as an excuse to slash housing allocations in the core strategies of their local development frameworks, but they should not be surprised if Inspectors find as a result that those core strategies are unsound and must be re-written. Meanwhile, any applications which go to appeal in the absence of an up-to-date development plan are likely to be dealt with under the government’s increasingly pro-development policy regime. Local councillors who were congratulating themselves on having escaped from the hated top-down imposition of unwanted housing allocations may find that their attempts to resist or restrict housebuilding on their green fields are no more effective than King Canute’s attempt to command the incoming tide to go out.

There are still some loose ends to be tied up. In order to ensure that the government’s pro-development agenda is effectively enforced, there needs to be a robust appeals system. Ministers will therefore have to abandon the intention which they had when they first entered office of emasculating the appeals system. That message may not yet have reached all corners of De-CLoG, but I expect we shall hear no more of the desk-based ‘checking’ exercise which it was suggested should replace the current appeals system. Ministers will soon realise that they need to beef up the resources of the Planning Inspectorate so as to ensure that an increasing workload does not lead to a backlog of appeals. A log-jam in the system is just what ministers do not need if they are to deliver development as a boost to the economy. (Expect a recruiting drive for more Inspectors in the New Year!)

I confess to being vastly amused by this volte-face on the part of the government. I never dreamed that they would actually attempt to put their half-baked pre-election policy ideas into practice, because I was confident that ‘Sir Humphrey’ would ensure that ministers were given a reality check before their ideas could get anywhere near implementation. When the government proceeded immediately after the election to forge ahead with their ‘localism’ agenda, I came to the conclusion that ‘Sir Humphrey’ had decided to let them have their head and see for themselves the chaos that would result. In practice, it is economic reality which has asserted itself, and which has imposed an altogether different imperative.


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