Monday 11 April 2011

Secretary of State displays his ignorance

If there is one thing worse than listening to a speech by Eric Pickles, it is reading a transcript of one of his speeches ‘as delivered’. Literate it is not. In fact, his speeches don’t make sense even if you can get your head around the mangled grammar and the strangulated vocabulary. I find it hard to believe that he carries any weight in Cabinet at all (except in a purely physical sense). Unless he has some political clout of which we are all entirely unaware, he would seem to be a prime candidate for the chop when Cameron and Clegg have their first cabinet reshuffle, probably during the forthcoming summer vacation.

Uncle Eric is still burbling on about ‘localism’, blithely ignoring the fact that the changes announced to coincide with the Budget have effectively killed the concept stone dead. Of course, having made such a fuss about ‘localism’, and having very unwisely called their Local Government and Planning Bill “the Localism Bill”, De-CLoG ministers have little choice but to continue to pay lip service to the idea, even though they probably realise that following the fundamental change of direction recently announced by the government, central control and influence over what local councils can actually do in relation to town and country planning will have to be as strong as ever if the government wants to ensure the delivery of economic growth through property development.

One passage in a recent Pickles speech which caused me particular amusement was this one:

There is no doubt in my mind that when I became Secretary of State, the single biggest drag anchor on growth was the planning system - it's expensive, bureaucratic and it doesn't work. But we've recently launched the planning guarantee, ensuring that the journey from application to decision takes less than a year. We're also working to reduce the over 7,000 pages of planning guidance down to 70 - and we'll be consulting on that. I intend that you should be able to work out planning issues without needing to seek advice from leading Counsel. This is good news for communities; good news for growth but likely to be bad news for the legal profession. If your planning silk has to think twice about that third week in Tuscany or whether to buy the Lamborghini after all, that's certainly a price I'm prepared to pay.”

Leaving aside for the moment the fact that it is still a complete mystery as to how the government is going to ensure that, even where an appeal is involved, it will take no more than a year from planning application to final decision, Pickles and his fellow De-CLoG ministers still do not seem to appreciate that by removing most of the current ministerial advice on policy and practice set out in various circulars and PPGs/PPSs, they will be creating huge uncertainty where there is currently clear guidance. This can only result in substantially increased opportunities for disputes and legal challenges. I frankly wouldn’t be in the least bit worried if I were one of the fabled fat-cat lawyers whom Uncle Eric hopes to frustrate by forthcoming changes in planning law and practice. The battleground will simply be shifted from the planning appeals system to the High Court, and this will mean more work for the planning bar rather than less.

Pickles should not be so complacent about the likely outcome of the changes he seems to have in mind. He and his colleagues could find that this will actually prevent delivery of the development on which the government seems to be pinning so much hope. There seems to me to be a considerable risk that those local planning authorities intent on resisting the government’s ‘dash for growth’ may find an over-simplified system much easier to circumvent if they choose to refuse planning permission and to resist appeals.

Pickles and his merry men should beware ‘the Law of Unintended Consequences’. I predict that much of what ministers are busily dismantling, in terms of planning policy at a strategic level, and central policy guidance and control over local decision-making will have to be re-introduced when it is realised that their removal has resulted in a further reduction in development rather than the hoped-for expansion.

As for the role of planning lawyers such as myself, we are intimately involved in all aspects of the development process and, even if the planning system is to some extent simplified (as I hope it will be), we shall still have a vital role to play in securing the grant of planning permission to our clients on advantageous terms and in facilitating the implementation of our client’s development proposals in a commercially viable form. A large part of my work as a planning lawyer is non-confrontational and consists of finding practical ways to bring development proposals to fruition so as to ensure the achievement of my clients’ commercial objectives. It is a process which Uncle Eric clearly does not even begin to understand.



  1. Excellent blog as ever Martin. I agree that Pickles misunderstands the role of lawyers (and planners) as he fails to see the value in negotiation and resolving conflicts. Planning doesn't create the current conflict, it aims to chart a course through the uncertainty, and lawyers play a key role in this.
    It also reminds me of how Gove blamed architects for the BSF programme and failed too see how architects were least to blame. Other parties involved were the ones creaming off the cash.

  2. Excellent post Martin! An astonishing lack of insight on the part of Captain Pickles...lawyers aren't just about interpreting planning law, policy or guidance (and town planners might think they're somewhat heavily involved in that anyway) but also tactical/strategic decision making with clients and also case preparation and presentation.

    And as you rightly point out - increasing uncertainty in the system will somehow equate to fewer legal arguments at Inquiry and High Court challenges? An example of what psychiatrists call 'magical thinking' maybe?



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