According to the Sunday Times (£), radical, status-quo-hating Dominic Cummings is focusing some of his energies into reforming the planning system, rightfully keen for housebuilding and infrastructure investment to be a key string to the government’s recovery bow.
The revelation that last Friday Cummings and Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick assembled a committee of experts to “think about very substantive changes” has garnered fresh attention for the planning white paper somewhere on the horizon. The correlation with the impending devolution white paper has been largely ignored.
Further excitement was added Wednesday when Policy Exchange published ‘Planning Anew’, a collection of essays to accompany their January report ‘Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century’.
Hidden on the last page of Wednesday’s release was a statement from Jenrick commending Policy Exchange’s work and suggesting: “The time has come to speed up and simplify this country’s overly bureaucratic planning process.”
In the immediacy there will be welcome measures to help businesses adjust through further flexibility in use changes and, as confirmed by Lord Greenhalgh on Monday, perhaps catch up with Scotland by extending planning permissions at risk of lapsing.
The government’s ‘Planning for the Future’ report, released the day after the March budget, indicated the longer-term ambition. Reports at the weekend confirmed that fast-tracking quality, well designed development and increased use of zonal planning are on the cards. It seems the green belt will remain a sacred cow.
As we outlined at the beginning of the year, Policy Exchange’s report on the planning system – much of which focussed on removing power from planning committees – shines further light on the type of ‘radical’ we’re looking at. It’s worth noting that the report’s author Jack Airey was hired by Cummings and is now Number 10’s housing advisor.
Eddie Lister’s often forgotten role at the heart of government is significant too. As well as strong associations with Policy Exchange, a career including 19 years as a local government leader followed by time as London’s deputy mayor for planning and a stint as Homes England’s chairman, Lister is no stranger to the development industry or local and regional government.
His role as leader of Wandsworth Council saw him slim down the council, privatising vast swathes of services to famously reduce council tax for “Thatcher’s favourite borough” to the lowest rate in the country. In Nine Elms and later across London he leant on private sector investment to drive significant regeneration.
Although little discussed in the context of planning reform, rumours from government and nervousness from councils suggests the devolution paper expected this year will seek significant change to the structure of local government. It seems revolution rather than evolution is the order of the day.
With a government in search of leavers to turbo-charge the economy, the temptation to radically reform planning to unleash development is an obvious one. Wholesale reform of local government is a slightly trickier response. That’s not to say it isn’t needed. What is obviously vital is how it happens.
Many local authorities are on their knees financially after responding to the pandemic. If, as feels increasingly likely, planning powers are stripped, or at least changed as local government is restructured, we may well see a sped up, simplified planning system. Then again, we may not.
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