Saturday, 1 October 2011

And it came to pass..........

One of the early posts in this blog after it was re-launched in April 2010 took the form of an imagined speech by a Secretary of State (“in a galaxy far, far away”) who was intent on adopting a pro-development agenda, and was prepared to change the planning system to make it happen.

This was written and published a month before the General Election, when it did not appear that any of the major parties had any intention of pursuing such an agenda, and certainly not the Tories whose “Open Source Planning” ‘green paper’ seemed set to become a NIMBYs’ charter. How things have changed!

The readership of this blog back in April 2010 could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand; whereas we are now getting 8,000 page views a month (and still rising), so I thought it might be worth revisiting that earlier piece, to see how certain passages in the imagined speech compare with what the government is now proposing.

The first topic touched on was the presumption in favour of development. These are the words I put in the mouth of my fictional minister:

As you know, if you want to carry out development in this country you need planning permission, but I want to re-establish the principle which once applied to all cases where the citizen is required by statute to apply for a licence or permission to do something, namely that that licence or permission should always be given unless there are sound and clear-cut reasons for refusal. In other, words, there is always a presumption, indeed a strong presumption, in favour of the requisite permission being granted.

The reasoning behind this is very simple - without the legislative restriction imposed by parliament the citizen would be perfectly entitled to do with his property as he pleased. He should not therefore be deprived of his property rights without good reason, and so planning permission should always be granted unless to do so would cause demonstrable harm to interests of acknowledged importance. That was a principle which was recognised for many years, and it is not so very long ago since government policy guidance said precisely that

My colleague, David Brock, has pointed out that the presumption in favour of development dates back in fact to 1923. It applied, more or less without qualification, until at least 1987, if not later, and then continued as a presumption in favour of development which was ‘in accordance with development plan’, but the presumption remained in place nonetheless. It is hardly a revolutionary concept.

After a discussion of changes to the development plan system (not currently on the ministerial agenda), my putative Secretary of State went on to consider changes to the Use Classes Order and to the General Permitted Development Order:

I want to turn now to some of the main policy changes I propose in order to make the planning system fairer and less burdensome. First, I intend to widen considerably the scope of Permitted Development under the General Permitted Development Order, especially for householder developments. The previous government has already had one go at householder development (under Part 1 of the Second Schedule to the GPDO) and quite frankly they made a total mess of it. Far from being more liberal, the new provisions have simply replaced one set of restrictive and ambiguous rules with another. I don’t propose to go into the detail here, but what I have in mind is a much more liberal regime for householder developments and a set of rules which iron out the ambiguities and anomalies and which are easily understandable. I propose to take the same approach to the rest of the GPDO and to rewrite every part of the Second Schedule in a similar fashion.

I also propose to revisit the Use Classes Order so as to produce rather broader classes, especially for commercial uses in town centres. For example, I propose to amalgamate the Category ‘A’ Use Classes in a single class, so that there would no longer be any restriction in changes of use to and from retail, office and catering uses in town centres. We really must leave it up to the market to decide what uses will be commercially viable in particular locations. I do not accept that we have to intervene in a misguided effort to protect primary retail frontages from other town centre uses. Nor should the planning system be used to restrict or control the development of food and drink or leisure uses in town centres. So far as the sale of alcohol is concerned, and the problems sometimes associated with it, that is a matter for licensing authorities; it is not the business of the planning system

Proposed changes to the UCO and GPDO may not go as far as this, but ministers certainly seem to be prepared to contemplate some significant liberalisation in this area.

One suggestion which was put forward in this imaginary speech which ministers do not currently appear to be pursuing was to ensure that it should no longer be open to local planning authorities to restrict the scope of the UCO by conditions attached to planning permissions which seek to restrict changes of use within a particular Use Class. The intentions of parliament in passing Section 55(2)(f) of the 1990 Act should not be over-ridden in this way.

I (or, rather, my fictitious minister) also proposed that the power of local planning authorities to remove permitted development rights by means of conditions attached to planning permissions should be ended, so that in future, if there were genuine and compelling reasons for restricting permitted development in particular areas or on particular sites, planning authorities would have to use the procedures available under Article 4 of the GPDO, which should be subject to ministerial review and confirmation if there were objections. (The requirement for ministerial confirmation of Article 4 directions was removed by the last government.)

The next main topic dealt with in this theoretical speech was the need to find considerably more housing land.

There will still be a need for a very large number of houses to be built in the private sector, and it is frankly unrealistic to expect that the numbers required can be built without resort to a significant number of ‘green field’ sites, especially in the south-east of England. All that has been achieved by restricting new build to ‘brown’ land is an overall reduction in house building, and the over-provision of small flats when there is an overwhelming need for family houses, with a decent amount of garden space where children can play. I shall use my supervisory powers over Development Plans to ensure that sufficient housing land is released to provide the homes we need, and I shall reinforce ministerial policy requiring local planning authorities to identify a 5-year land supply for housing (with a 2-year supply of sites ready for immediate development), failing which undesignated ‘wind-fall’ sites will have to be given planning permission (on appeal, if necessary) in order to ensure that house-building targets are met. We do need to predict future housing needs, and we do need to provide the land to meet those predictions. The so-called alternative of “plan, monitor and manage” simply did not deliver the housing the country so badly needs.”

The government has set its face firmly against the imposition of top-down housing targets, but it is clear that by one means or another they intend that there should be substantially more houses built in the future, most of which cannot realistically be built on brown land.

My phantom Secretary of State next proposed to overhaul the Green Belt, but despite the fears expressed by the National Trust and others, the draft NPPF does not depart from the principles currently set out in PPG2. I have set out elsewhere in this blog my own views on the need for Green Belt reform, and so I do not need to repeat them here.

I (or my alter ego) also proposed similar changes to the legislation and practice relating to Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas, but there does not seem to be any appetite on the part of ministers to intervene in that area. Again, concerns which have been expressed about the NPPF appear to have been prompted by the omission of some detail which had previously been set out in PPS5. I do not believe this betokens any change of policy on the part of the government.

My imaginary Secretary of State ended his speech with this peroration:

Bearing in mind the disappointing results following previous promises of planning reform, those involved in planning and development might be forgiven for being a little cynical about the proposals I have announced, but I assure you, ladies and gentlemen, that this is no cosmetic exercise. This time we are going right back to first principles. It may involve the slaughtering a few sacred cows, and I can already hear the screams of agony from certain special interest groups, who have become accustomed to regard the planning system as a useful tool for resisting change. But such protests will not deter us from our intent to carry through these reforms, so as to produce a planning system that is truly responsive to the needs of society, and which will produce the development that we need, in the right place and at the right time, in order both to sustain our economic position and to provide decent homes for our citizens.”

We have recently heard loud and prolonged “screams of agony from certain special interest groups, who have become accustomed to regard the planning system as a useful tool for resisting change” Some of the details of the NPPF may benefit from some modest textual amendments, mainly to restore to the text certain passages from previous ministerial policy statements which seem to have got ‘lost in translation’, but I do hope that the government will stick to its guns “so as to produce a planning system that is truly responsive to the needs of society, and which will produce the development that we need, in the right place and at the right time, in order both to sustain our economic position and to provide decent homes for our citizens”.

Perhaps I should offer my services as a political speech-writer!


1 comment:

  1. Better than that Martin, you should offer your services to assist/direct rewriting the legislation. Excellent blog, thank you