This week saw the launch of the Policy Exchange report Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century.
The report advocates wholesale reform to the current system, arguing that whilst the state has a legitimate role to influence development and urban growth, the current system still retains the fundamental principles from 1947 of a government programme seeking to create a command-and-control economy.
It goes on to say that the level of state control in the British planning system is also relatively unusual compared to other Western countries – “building is the sole major industry in which you can only do something if you have specific, detailed permission from the state”.
The last general election illustrated the wide range of political viewpoints on virtually every issue, but it is interesting that planning remains one of the few issues where the centre ground is effectively on the far left on the political spectrum.
I’ve served as a councillor on my local planning authority and recognise that there is merit in a number of the criticisms identified within the report. For instance, we ask councillors to help develop and vote on 15-year plans to guide development, only to find that many of the same members will subsequently seek to oppose allocated or policy compliant schemes at planning committee. Many of these decisions will be overturned at appeal so councillors can feel confident in the knowledge that housing will be delivered but can tell local residents to blame ‘inspectors in Bristol’ for the decision.
To be fair to councillors, this is a product of a system which has an effective vocal minority and elections in three out of four years (for many local authorities) making them risk adverse. You only have to look at the repeated delays to the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework for an example of how this plays out locally, creating uncertainty and delaying much needed investment.
The report goes on to recommend a number of reforms to provide a clean break with the existing planning system. The most controversial of which would see a streamlined role for local politicians. Democratic consent and oversight would still be a key part for the development of local plans, but the thinking is that once policies are agreed by elected politicians, the determination of applications becomes an administrative function – checking that the proposals conform to local rules.
One of the other key recommendations would see the introduction of a binary zonal system for planning, with boroughs divided between clear areas identified for development land with a presumption in favour of new development; and a much smaller restricted zone.
Whether the wholesale changes the report advocates would work are subject to debate, however, it can’t be denied that the current system is in need of the reform and the report’s contribution should be welcomed.
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Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow