Monday, 12 September 2011

Planning gains?

Any planning policy and system is ripe for criticism. Those who are stopped from doing something call it ‘unnecessary bureaucracy’; those who lose a battle to oppose a particular development call it a ‘useless bureaucracy’.

The reality is that a planning policy and system is there to try to provide a framework within which competing national, local and community interests are balanced. This inevitably means that someone will be disappointed by whatever decision is reached about a particular proposal.

Let’s take a simple example. A colleague has long-stated that the most difficult decision any councillors have to take is where to site a bus-stop. Everyone wants a bus-stop in their road, but no-one wants one outside their house. If no location in that road is agreed, every resident will complain that they are being ignored by public transport. So, someone will inevitably be upset when the decision is made to put the bus-stop in front of their home.

In the run-up to the last general election, the Conservatives made much of their opposition to what they described as a “top-down planning policy being imposed on local communities” and promised to ‘abolish regional planning and give power about stopping developments to local people’.

In truth, what the Conservative-led government is doing is to replace one national framework with another. The all-party Select Committee that I chair – after a detailed investigation - was very critical of parts of the government’s proposals. Recently, various groups, like the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, have weighed in to the debate, being especially critical of the declaration that: “At the heart of the planning system is a presumption in favour of sustainable development, which should be seen as a golden thread running through both plan making and decision taking.”

Correctly, I think, they see this as a charter for developers to build on the green-field – not Green Belt – land that surrounds most towns and villages. This concern is enhanced because it will be combined with financial inducements to councils to get more homes built through the New Homes Bonus. There is no shortage of brown-field land with planning permission for new housing, but developers want to build on green-field sites.

Concerns have increased this week when it became public that the new planning rules were actually drafted by a four-strong panel, in which three of the members had direct involvement in property development. The revelation that the Conservative Party has received £3.3m in the past three years from property firms who could benefit from the Government’s planning reforms doesn’t assist its case.