Thursday, 9 April 2015
REAL Reform of the Planning System ?
In an article which I posted here five years ago, on Tuesday 20 April 2010, I speculated, through the words of a supposed speech by a member of a newly elected ‘Conlaberal’ government, on changes that could (and perhaps should) be made to planning law and practice.
This was a couple of weeks before the last General Election, when it did not appear that any of the main political parties had in mind any proposals resembling those canvassed in the article. If Labour were-to be re-elected, it seemed that their planning policies would in effect be ‘more of the same’ as we had seen for the past 13 years. The Tories, on the other hand, had discovered the concept of ‘Localism’ and appeared to be about to enact a NIMBY’s Charter if they were returned to power.
The Tory-led coalition that came to power in May 2010 did indeed set out to put these NIMBYist ideas into practice, daft and impractical though they seemed to be. I commented at the time that political and economic reality would sooner or later force a change of direction, and so it proved. This was not due solely to the desire of the government to boost an obviously flagging economy, but was also driven by a fundamental tension within the Tory party itself, between the Tory backwoodsmen - MPs and their constituents in the more green and pleasant parts of the country who were committed NIMBYs and just wanted to make development go away – and, on the other hand, the ‘free marketers’, led by the Tory Chancellor, George Osborne, with the support of his friend and mentor, David Cameron, not to mention other senior members of the government who believed passionately in allowing the unrestrained operation of market forces. This faction within the government, which rapidly gained the upper hand, saw building and development as something to be encouraged for its own sake, as well as being a useful means of boosting the economy.
These competing views were not confined to the Tory party itself, but had been evident within government (that is to say, within the government machine) for some time before 2010. The Treasury, in particular, had been pushing the case for building and development even under the last Labour government, as evidenced by several reports and initiatives coming out of the Treasury at that time.
What is remarkable, looking back over the past five years, is the extent to which the various ideas I canvassed in that April 2010 article have been put into practice, without any hint prior to the 2010 General Election that any of these proposals were on the agenda.
The words I put in the mouth of my fictitious Minister, dealing with some of the main policy changes he was supposedly putting forward included this: “First, I intend to widen considerably the scope of Permitted Development under the General Permitted Development Order, especially for householder developments. ...........What I have in mind is a much more liberal regime for householder developments” and he went on to say that he proposed to take the same approach to other parts of the GPDO.
Our fictitious minster also proposed to amend the Use Classes Order so as to produce rather broader classes, especially for commercial uses in town centres. For example, he proposed an amalgamation of 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. To quote the supposed speech again: “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.”
The minister then went on to say that he also intended to make a number of important changes to ministerial policy advice. These included subjects such as Housing, Green Belts and development in the countryside. There was a need, in particular, to encourage house-building.
He said this : “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 powers 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.”
Later in the speech, our putative minister turned the subject of Listed Buildings. He canvassed some changes to the system of listed building control, and said: “ We all greatly value our architectural heritage, but it is important that the owners and users of buildings protected by these formal designations should not be unduly fettered in their use of their property. A fair balance must be struck between preservation on the one hand and, on the other, appropriate change to ensure the continued beneficial use of such buildings.”
He added: “In order to assist owners of listed buildings to determine whether listed building consent may or may not be required in particular circumstances, I propose to introduce provisions similar to the existing procedures for lawful development certificates. The non-availability of such certificates in respect of works to listed buildings is an anomaly that has long been in need of reform.”
There were admittedly some rather more radical proposals in this speech that were never likely to see the light of day. These included a down-grading of the status of the Development Plan, by repealing section 38(6) of the 2004 Act, and considerably simplifying the plan-making process. A major review of Green Belt boundaries and of Green Belt policy as also proposed – but it is very unlikely that any political party will dare to grasp this particular nettle.
De-listing of large numbers of Grade II listed buildings was also suggested, coupled with a significant relaxation of listed building control with regard to internal alterations of Grade II buildings.
Finally, the minister proposed to embark on a thorough re-drafting of both primary and subordinate planning legislation, so as to iron out anomalies and ambiguities and generally to simplify what has become a grossly over-complicated system. He could well have added that there is an urgent need to streamline the development management process, so as to simplify planning applications and their processing.
So there is still much to do to bring about REAL reform of the planning system. I wonder whether the next government, whatever its political complexion, might be persuaded to tackle these issues.
© MARTIN H GOODALL