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New planning reforms, will they work?

August 15th, 2011

The proposed National Planning Policy Framework finally started making waves in the national media recently after conservation groups stepped up campaigns to force the government to ditch the introduction of a presumption in favour of development. The Campaign to Protect Rural England has called on the public to rise up and oppose the policy in the same way that led to proposals to sell national forests to be quickly withdrawn. Comments by planning minister Bob Neill about a “left-wing smear campaign” merely helped put the story on the front pages.

Does the government have the will to stick to the policy? And taken with the totality of planning reform from the coalition, which includes the scrapping of regional housing and density targets, will it be positive even if it does make it?

Going head-to-head on the issue are Nigel Moor, a planning consultant with 40 years’ experience in the industry who is a keen supporter of the reforms, and Roger Humber, strategic policy adviser to the House Builders Association, who is sceptical of the government’s ability to make it work. Moor, a former conservative councillor in his home town of Wallingford, was also part of a team consulted by the Tory opposition when drawing up its plans. Humber represents smaller housebuilders and is a former leader of the Home Builders Federation.

Joey Gardiner: Nigel, why do you support the plans?

Nigel Moor: Since 1990 the default position on planning has been “no”. Most local authorities have been able to find, in their local pans, policies to prevent development for whatever reason they want.

So there’s been that default position, something that under New Labour a succession of planning and housing ministers never got to grips with. I think this is the first team at the communities department that has got down to what it really means to try to deregulate planning, trying to simplify it and give a positive outcome.

Roger Humber: If we look at the reforms both from the point of view of what the NPPF tries to do positively, and also in the context of the abolition of the regional spatial strategies, I have real fears about this. While the local authorities are being told to plan positively, I fear that they are not going to be willing to do this. It’s the political dynamic in the absence of housing numbers that I really worry about. Let’s face it, [communities secretary] Eric Pickles is a very political character. I don’t think he’ll want to fight to the death and die in a ditch.

I agree with Nigel on welcoming the reversal of the political intention [of the default position being no]. I just wonder about the deliverability of it when they take away the principal weapon they had for ensuring it happens, which was the central housing numbers. It seems a tragedy to wipe away the housing numbers, and then introduce such a positive NPPF with the risks there.

NM: But the [housing] figures are there in the ether, because the evidence base that has come out of [the research done to draw up the individual] regional strategies, is there. In Oxfordshire the figures approved by the [inspector’s] panel and subsequently adopted by the government are now guiding the councils. It’s going to be a question for the inspectorate [but] it seems to me they will give a lot of priority to this evidence base.

RH: I agree, the evidence base is there. The problem is that we know there are other [local authorities] who have said “we can now scrap all of this and just start all over again”. There’s a risk of plans being taken forward that don’t reflect the evidence base. The inspectorate will say it’s not sound. This should open the door for the presumption in favour and for the secretary of state to grant appeals until such time as they adopt a sound plan.The problem is that’s a system on a collision course from the outset, that can only end one way – in favour of the grassroots Tories. No secretary of state is going to sit there for too long and allow this to happen.

NM: But the difference now is that the coalition has the highest majority of any post-war government since Clement Attlee. If it wants to take this thing forward, then it’s going to have to take the back bench flack and not buckle. I just hope there’s a bunch of ministers – who do seem to be working well together – that have got the balls to work this one through.

RH: Over the last 25 years, we’ve always seen ministers flinch in the face of backbench revolts. Obviously an awful lot of this conflict will only unwind much closer to the election, and that’s the time the coalition will be starting to unravel, and pre-election positions will be starting to be taken.

I hope that they’re prepared to stare down the barrel at [opposition] and stare them down, but the political dynamics point to big risks.

NM: But in Oxfordshire they’ve planning portfolio holders have been pretty robust. I’ve seen them recently having to take very difficult positions with regards to additional housing, [facing] a lot of ward difficulties in the district council.

JG: Is all this reform necessary anyway, was the previous planning system really failing?

RH: Contrary to everything [housing minister Grant] Shapps says about the housing numbers being like Soviet tractor targets, government statistics show clearly they were working. Between 2001/2 and 2007/8 the housing numbers – total net additions – had risen by 58%, and the trajectory they were going at would have seen them get to about 240,000 homes per year, by next year.

The statisticians are telling the truth that the politicians did not want to acknowledge, that the figures were on a virtuous trajectory pretty well opposite to the position portrayed by Shapps.
I’m not saying it didn’t need reform – but at least the housing numbers were coming through.

NM: The difficulty is to disentangle whether that was a reflection of those targets, or benign conditions in terms of the housing market itself. We both agree that the figures won’t really go away; they’re in the system. We need to find a way of making sure the system reflects that. But ministers aren’t going to be prepared to sanction the tractor targets again.

JG: The government promised to give local control. But given estimates that 95% of councils won’t have local plans up to date, they’re potentially subjecting the huge majority of development in the hands of this presumption in favour. Will this cause problems?

RH: There’s quite a lot of smoke and mirrors on this and at some point the government is going to find itself held to account and asked some very hard questions by people who believe in localism and thought they were going to have quite substantial localism.

There were obviously those who hoped that the first thing it would allow them to do was virtually have a standstill on development if they choose to do that. At the moment the government is signalling to them no, that’s not what it means.

The other bit of it is that at neighbourhood plan level, where the degree of localism and the degree of what can be done locally, is so much less than I think, they were led to believe by Shapps, [planning minister Bob] Neill and Pickles. I’ve been to a presentation by [government chief planner] Steve Quartermain at the National Planning Forum, about how a neighbourhood plan would have to be brought forward, and everyone was sitting there with their head in their hands at the end of it, thinking that’s absolutely ridiculous, no one will ever want to do it.

NM: It was always a big call, because for a local community, the costs of assembling the kind of package of information and documents you need for any significant proposal was always going to be of a high order. At the moment the localism appears to be limping along behind these major changes. I’ve been involved with my community with a new community shop proposal. It’s taken a great deal of cost and pro bono time on everyone’s parts.

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