Wednesday, 21 March 2012

George Osborne’s damp squib

As my colleague, David Brock, blogged the other day (see the link on the side bar), publication of the final version of the National Planning Policy Framework seems to have been delayed slightly.

Publication was originally scheduled “before the end of March”, and the government still seems on target to meet that deadline, but there is strong evidence that efforts were being made to publish the NPPF in time to coincide with today’s Budget Statement.

At the weekend George Osborne was hoping to announce that the NPPF would be published “on Budget Day”, but it seems that this got changed at the last moment, so that what he actually said in a TV interview on Sunday was that it would be published “in Budget Week” (in fact I thought I heard him say, rather awkwardly, “ON Budget Week”).

In today’s Budget Statement this had changed to “next week”. Rumours are going around Whitehall that the Treasury was pressing very hard to get publication of the NPPF scheduled to coincide with the Budget, no doubt to allow George Osborne once again to make a splash by announcing significant planning ‘reforms’. He seems for some obscure reason to be intent whenever possible on stealing Uncle Eric’s thunder.

The reason for the last minute hitch seems to be, as David Brock suggested in his recent blog post, that there is some last-minute horse-trading going on between the Treasury and De-CLoG (and possibly also DEFRA) over the extent to which the dash for growth is to be the overriding aim of the document and how far this is to be tempered with ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ as a sop to the environmental lobby.

For the government, it’s probably a case of “Heads – they win; Tails – we lose” in the sense that if the NPPF is seen to be a developers’ charter, there will be renewed screaming and shouting from the usual suspects (CPRE, National Trust, the Daily Torygraph, etc.) whereas if the document is seen to have been significantly watered down compared with the controversial consultation draft, we can expect to hear whingeing from the HBF, British Chambers of Commerce and other pro-development groups (“a lost opportunity to promote economic growth” etc. etc. – choose your own rent-a-quote).

What really interests me as a planning lawyer is how far Uncle Eric’s mad scheme to cut ministerial policy advice down to only a little over 50 pages will have been adhered to, or whether common sense has prevailed within De-CLoG, so that a significant body of advice on practice and procedure will have been preserved in a suite of supporting documents. Whilst PPGs and PPSs are set to disappear, there is no need to withdraw any of the existing circulars. As I have suggested before, some of the contents of existing PPGs and PPSs really do need to be re-published in some other form, and this is what I shall be looking out for when the NPPF comes out.


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