Why is planning in the news again? In March 2012 the government launched its National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) with a clear, if ambitious, timetable for LPAs to work to, and a sense that the dust had settled after months of bitter wrangling.
Against that backdrop, the Prime Minister’s exhortation yesterday that “we need to get the planners off our backs” is the equivalent of poking a big stick into a hornet’s nest – again. As the planning barrister Richard Harwood told The Daily Telegraph, councils need a debate about planning policy “like a hole in the head”.
Responding to questions in the House of Commons Eric Pickles denied that the new package was introducing changes in planning policy, apart from renegotiating section 106 obligations and the temporary change to permitted development. Instead the changes focused on “procedural matters”.
But there was a hint of, if not a policy shift, then some signs of frustration that the planning side of localism isn’t perhaps panning out like the government hoped it would. In his written statement Eric Pickles noted that:
‘The Localism Act has put the power to plan back in the hands of communities, but with this power comes responsibility: a responsibility to meet their needs for development and growth, and to deal quickly and effectively with proposals that will deliver homes, jobs and facilities.’
DCLG ministers have reminded us often that communities are now in the driving seat, but we’ve heard a lot less about the accompanying responsibility to make sure that they quickly get on with building houses and so on. Is this a shot across the bows, and how will the government react if they perceive communities to be behaving ‘irresponsibly’?
Related to this, Labour MPs were quick to point out that the proposals to punish poor performing authorities by removing their planning responsibilities and putting them into the hands of a central inspection agency was decidedly against the spirit of devolving power.
The Secretary of State denied there was a contradiction; instead he called it ‘muscular localism’, arguing that:
“It is only those local authorities that have been dragging their feet and being wholly unrealistic, operating in a kind of economy la-la land, that we will be dealing with.”
Still, LPAs are entitled to feel nervous. Who will define, and by what measure, poorly performing planning authorities? What will be the implications financially? And what support arrangements will be in place to help them undertake the improvement that is required?
More broadly, does it really matter? The government continues to criticise LPAs for holding up new housing development because of the time they are taking to approve applications. However, the LGA has just published figures to show that LPAs have granted approval for 400,000 new homes that are not yet complete, with building yet to begin on more than half of these. It concludes that ‘at the current rate of construction it would take developers 3.75 years to clear the backlog by building all of the new homes local authorities have signed off.’
In a bizarre way perhaps the intention is to highlight the value of planning, in the same way that local people in Aberystwyth in Wales were begging the local council to restore parking inspectors after a year without them. By unleashing the potential for backyard warfare in cul-de-sacs across the country as neighbours block each other’s sunlight and aspect, people may plead for some planning red tape after all.
Jokes aside, Planning Magazine reported that many planning consultants and law firms welcome the changes to permitted development rights. For example, Stuart Andrews, Head of Planning at law firm Eversheds, remarked that:
‘The permitted rights for most home and business extensions were drafted in response to building pressure in the 1950s and 60s. They are now outdated and fail to recognise that most of us are very careful in what we do to our property.’
Nonetheless, this is a controversial proposal as it implies that the current restrictions serve little purpose other than to stifle much local building and the economic benefit that would bring. Why, then, only make this a time limited measure? Perhaps because not everyone is as careful as Stuart Andrews suggests, and there may yet be unintended consequences regarding the impact of new back garden development for some neighbours, and for local environments. Elected members take note…