Monday, 15 April 2013

Beware of the Leopard

It appears that this government prefers that we should conduct our relations in the world of science fiction.

Of course, that helps if you prefer policy development by assertion rather than being troubled by facts or evidence.

It was bad enough that Eric Pickles reminded me of a Sontaran.*

Now we have Eric’s Local Government Minister, Brandon Lewis, resorting to quoting the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in support of his decision to continue to require that councils should still be forced to publish details of planning applications and highways notices in local newspapers. **

Now, let me be clear that, in my view, the last government was completely wrong in deciding not to remove the statutory requirements to publish notices in newspapers. The reality is that councils are being forced to waste around £40m of taxpayers’ money each year to subsidise local newspapers.

In nearly 40 years of local and parliamentary representation, I can't remember having met a single person who has discovered a planning or highway proposal from the statutory notice. Has anybody else?

Actually, the position has got worse since the 2009 review. Local newspaper print sales have continued to drop – even in the big cities, readership is now less than 20% of the population. The same newspapers claim that their business case is now based on web access, supported by on-line advertising. Just as the national newspapers are rushing to put their web access behind a pay-wall, it will not be long before the local and regional print media follow suit. Yet, which local newspaper actually puts on-line the very statutory notices that councils have been forced to pay them a fortune to publish?

However, Brandon Lewis does well to link the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the government’s planning policies. It’s just that he quoted the wrong extract. Planning Minister Nick Boles is well cast as the local planning officer in the exchange with Arthur Dent, when his house is about to be demolished:

"But Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months." 
"Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn't exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything." 
"But the plans were on display ..." 
"On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them." 
"That's the display department."
"With a flashlight."
"Ah, well the lights had probably gone." 
"So had the stairs." 
"But look, you found the notice didn't you?" 
"Yes," said Arthur, "yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard'."

I rather suspect that in the coming months, there will be many people - following Arthur Dent’s example - throwing themselves to the ground in front of the bulldozers which Nick Boles has unleashed.

The government’s National Planning Policy Framework is just a year old. In its draft form, the All-Party Communities and Local Government Committee unanimously gave the NPPF a real mauling. We were quite clear that the policy, as drafted, the default ‘yes’ to development was likely to result in unsustainable development and that the absence of a specific reference to ‘brownfield first’ and ‘town centre first’ would inevitably result in ‘greenfield first’ and ‘out-of-town first’.

We were pleased when the then Planning Minister told us all that 30 of the 35 changes recommended by the CLG Committee had been adopted. Most commentators welcomed the outcome, although a few sceptics – CPRE, National Trust, Daily Mail – remained cautious at best.

They’ve now proved to have been correct. Planning and housing changes announced in the budget have apparently led Nick Boles to privately promise property developers that planning laws will be liberalised again within weeks to allow them to begin a house-building boom, and then tell house-building executives that he wanted to make it easier for property owners 'to do some things without having to ask for permission'.

The planning minister has admitted that new developments are “quite likely to be ugly” and will put pressure on the local infrastructure with few obvious benefits to local communities, and that planning rules limiting construction on greenfield sites will be relaxed.

At local level, the fact that developers are simply asserting that brownfield sites are ‘not viable’ is already forcing councils to bring forward more greenfield development sites just to meet their statutory obligations as brownfield sites lie empty. We might well ask what is happening to the sites already with permission to build 400,000 homes.

Last week, Eric Pickles told the Daily Telegraph “Trust me: I won't let the bulldozers wreck Middle England.” Is this more science fiction?

I’m reminded that, along with ‘the cheque is in the post’, the other claim you should never trust is “I’m from the planning department and I’m here to help you.”

Or, after another round of council cuts, should this be "I used to be from the planning department and  I used to be able to help you"?

Beware of the Leopard!