Thursday, 6 September 2012
Major planning changes ahead
It has become clear today that George Osborne’s prediction of further planning changes in an interview with Andrew Marr on BBC1 last Sunday was merely a precursor to the major announcement of further planning changes from 10 Downing Street today. Planning issues rarely hit the headlines, but this story has received wide coverage in the press.
It is significant that today’s announcement (and the press briefings that were no doubt given yesterday, leading to some slightly over-excited stories in today’s papers) came not from De-CloG but from No.10. It would seem that, following this week’s cabinet reshuffle, Uncle Eric is still in office but no longer in charge. Planning policy is now being dictated from the centre.
Cameron’s announcement foreshadows some quite dramatic changes in planning procedure and practice. How these will actually be implemented will emerge in the weeks and months ahead, but some of those that particularly grabbed my attention were:
• “Thousands of big commercial and residential applications to be directed to a major infrastructure fast track and, where councils are poor, developers can opt to have their decision taken by the Planning Inspectorate”
• “Calling time on poor performing town hall planning departments, putting the worst into ‘special measures’ if they have failed to improve the speed and quality of their work and allowing developers to bypass councils. More applications also will go into a fast track appeal process”
This suggests that a large number of planning applications that are currently dealt with under the usual LPA-controlled development management system will go straight to the Planning Inspectorate (as successor to the IPC) to be dealt with under the major infrastructure approvals regime, even though these may not in themselves be ‘infrastructure’ projects. It is immediately obvious that this is yet another nail in the coffin of ‘localism’ but, as I have pointed out before ,‘localism’ is simply not compatible with a centrally driven dash for development-led growth.
It appears that even those projects that are not dealt with in that way may well be fast-tracked through the appeals process. There is already a right to appeal against non-determination (treated as a ‘deemed refusal’) if a planning application is not determined by the LPA within eight weeks (which can be 13 or 16 weeks in the case of larger projects, especially if an Environmental Impact Assessment is involved), and presumably the intention is to make this a more attractive proposition to developers than waiting in the hope that the LPA will eventually get around to granting planning permission. It will be interesting to see what means are adopted to encourage such appeals.
One obvious flaw in this is the current difficulty developers frequently encounter in getting applications registered in the first place, which fixes the start date for the 8-week (or the 13 or 16-week) period. LPAs seem to use any and every excuse to delay registering applications. The application process is currently the subject of a consultation exercise by De-CLoG and there is clearly an urgent need to prevent the process being delayed by LPAs in this way. The current validation requirements will need to be significantly relaxed, involving a substantial reduction in the demands for often unnecessary information with which developers are all too often faced.
Other major bullet points in Cameron’s announcement include up to 70,000 new homes, including up to 15,000 affordable homes, and opportunities for first-time buyers to get onto the housing ladder, plus measures to bring 5,000 empty homes back into use. The government also wants to see an additional 5,000 homes built for rent at market rates in order to boost the private rented sector. The government does not say precisely how this is to be achieved, but it will clearly require a significant change in the current policy approach to housing development on green field sites.
Most of these changes will require primary legislation, and will no doubt be included in the promised Bill which is expected to be introduced within the next few weeks and is then going to be ‘fast-tracked’ through both houses of parliament, with a view to its receiving Royal Assent before the end of October. The timetable could conceivably slip slightly, but we can certainly expect this legislation to be in place before the end of the year.
It seems at last that we are going to get the kind of sea-change in planning policy (encouraging housing development in particular) that Maggie Thatcher engineered with Michael Heseltine in the early 1980s.
© MARTIN H GOODALL