Monday, 28 November 2011

Where does the government go now?

The government has still got to do some hard thinking about the planning system. There is an, as yet, unresolved contradiction between the attitude to the planning system which the Tories displayed both before they came to power and in the first ten months after the election and, on the other hand, the government’s apparently damascene conversion (dating from this year’s budget statement at the end of March) to the benefits of built development in contributing to much-needed economic growth.

Scrapping regional strategies (and with it the removal of any form of regional planning) clearly serves the anti-development agenda with which the government came to power. The Localism Act, with its concept of neighbourhood planning and various other forms of ‘localism’, was also directed to the same end. The original intention behind scrapping detailed ministerial policy guidance and replacing it with a single very thin document (the NPPF) was similarly to remove what were seen as over-prescriptive centrally promulgated policies, so as to leave local planning authorities free to resist development in their own back yards. An intention to emasculate the appeals system was another item on the same agenda.

The first and most controversial change has been the alleged transformation of the draft NPPF from what originally promised to be a fairly innocuous document, which would have left local planning authorities with what they imagined was to be enhanced freedom of action in turning down planning applications, to an engine for unrestricted development. For the reasons which I have explained previously, I do not believe that this was the primary intention in the drafting of the NPPF, nor do I believe it will necessarily have this effect. Mere omission of some of the detailed guidance in existing PPGs and PPSs does not necessarily betoken a change of approach. On the other hand, the opportunity was taken to throw into the draft document some encouraging noises about development, in order to bring the document into line with the government’s newfound need to promote economic growth (or, at the very least, to fend off another recession). The result is a somewhat inept piece of drafting which pleases no-one.

The economic outlook is still very threatening, and the government cannot afford to lose any opportunity to shore up a faltering economy. I suspect that this will ultimately prove to be the stronger of the two competing forces which are currently pulling the government in opposite directions over town planning. Much as the National Trust, the CPRE and the Daily Torygraph may hate it, it may well prove to be the pro-development agenda which will win the day.

The Federation of Master Builders suggested recently that it will be necessary for the government to reintroduce housing targets, whether on a regional or on a county-by-county basis, but this would be so embarrassing politically that it is beyond the bounds of practical politics. For the same reason, the government cannot be seen to abandon the NPPF in face of the chorus of dissent which greeted the publication of the consultation draft. So far as the NPPF is concerned, what is likely to emerge is a messy compromise, which reinstates some of the material omitted from the consultation draft but was to be found in previous ministerial policy guidance, and perhaps some toning down of the apparently aggressive pro-development thrust of the document.

Economic necessity will nevertheless drive the government to find other means by which development can effectively be promoted. This requires only a few simple mechanisms to be put in place, none of which will need legislation. First, in publishing a toned down final version of the NPPF next March (or April), the government should accompany it with a robustly worded letter or circular stressing the importance it places on economic growth and on the planning system as a means of delivering that growth. This statement should reiterate that the default answer to any planning application is ‘Yes’, and should confirm that ministers will apply this approach in determining appeals. (There is nothing revolutionary about this; as my colleague David Brock has pointed out, it has been written onto ministerial planning policy ever since the 1920s!) Secondly, any lingering thoughts of emasculating the appeals system should be abandoned; on the contrary it needs to be strengthened, and extra inspectors may well have to be recruited to cope with an increased workload.

In the absence of regional housing targets or similar centrally imposed policies, planning by appeal is the only means by which the reluctance of local planning authorities to allow sufficient development in their areas can be overcome. This approach might arguably be an unsatisfactory way in which to deliver much-needed development, but the government has left themselves little option, having abandoned a more structured policy-based approach.

In the meantime, what of the government’s much-vaunted housing strategy? This rag-bag of miscellaneous ideas, hastily cobbled together last week in something of a panic, can hardly be dignified with the term ‘strategy’. It has already become clear that many of the proposals will have little practical impact on housebuilding, and will hardly counter the action taken by the government soon after it came to power, which (to take just one example) has had the effect of cutting affordable housing starts to a pitifully low figure.

The government clearly has a mountain to climb if it seriously intends to get housebuilding moving. This makes it all the more likely that they will continue to rely on a strongly pro-development policy stance when publishing the NPPF next year, even if the document itself is slightly expurgated by comparison with the consultation draft . By itself, of course, a pro-development policy stance will not be enough to free up the logjam; fiscal and financial incentives will have to be considerably beefed up in order to oil the wheels of the housing market. Ministers are now getting so desperate about the economy (which has been depressed largely through their own post-election policies) that they appear to be quite ready to adopt desperate measures, even if it does involve yet more U-turns away from the over-hasty doctrinaire measures taken shortly after the government came to power, such as cutting the funding for social housing.

One views the developing situation not so much with amusement as bemusement.



  1. Why are LPAs reluctant to allow sufficient development?

  2. The answer to Evan’s question, I suggest, is that reluctance to allow sufficient development in their areas is primarily caused by the local political pressures on councillors. They feel obliged to kow-tow to the local NIMBYs for fear of being voted out by disgruntled electors at the next Council elections. Similarly, while the Tories were in opposition, the party leadership had their ear bent by Tory councillors who felt they were being pressurised by central government to allow development which they would have preferred to resist. This is the key to Eric Pickles’ determination to scrap regional strategies and other targets, to do away with PPGs and PPSs and replace them with a pathetically thin NPPF and to introduce various forms of ‘localism’. Unfortunately for Tory councillors and their NIMBY electors, this approach is inconstant with the government’s more recent and now, I believe, over-riding concern to revive faltering economic growth. By this time next year I suspect there are going to be a lot of unhappy Tory councillors, not to mention even more discontented government back-benchers.

  3. When do you think the goverment will change the default to yes, regarding office to residential planning change of use.

  4. The government has already indicated a willingness to encourage conversion of offices to housing, and is currently consulting on proposed changes to the GPDO to encourage this, although it seems to have run into some strenuous opposition in certain quarters. We should see any resulting changes in the first half of 2012. Where express planning permission is still required, the general presumption in favour of sustainable development should enable such proposals to be approved, subject to development plan policies and other material considerations.