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More changes to planning: what’s going on?

More changes to planning: what’s going on?

The Government wants to amend the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). It was meant to last a generation, but governments cannot leave the planning system alone.

The consultation closes on 25 January, and at least CPRE’s policy staff will have something to think about over Christmas.

The first sign of this government’s itch to fiddle with the planning system was the appointment of an expert panel to advise on speeding up the delivery of local plans. Although I was critical of the composition of the panel, we have had a good dialogue with its Chair, John Rhodes, and made a detailed submission based on the evidence of CPRE branches from across the country. We look forward to the committee’s report in January.

But by then further changes to the planning system will be well in train, as the Housing and Planning Bill reaches the end of its passage through Parliament. The expert panel is labouring to suggest improvements to a system the Government has already decided to change. And now, before the Bill has been properly debated let alone passed by Parliament, another set of changes is on the way.

The Bill, the appointment of the expert panel, and the proposed revisions to the NPPF have three things in common.

First, they are all about speeding up planning and making it easier to get planning permission. Development is important, housing development particularly important, but the planning system is not merely an instrument for promoting development. ‘Delivery’ is not its only purpose or even its primary purpose. Planning has a variety of purposes, and it should not be narrowed to the single aim of building as much stuff as possible as quickly as possible.

If place-making, design, green spaces, flood protection and so on are neglected, it will ultimately become harder for the country to get the development it needs. Forcing through sub-standard building in places we should not be building is not in anyone’s long-term interests.

Second, the proposed changes require far deeper scrutiny than they are getting. On one reading of the housing bill, it sets a zonal planning system alongside the 1947 system. On any reading, it gives huge powers to the Secretary of State, particularly under the permission in principle and the proposals on Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects. There was no Green Paper or White Paper to tease out the implications of the proposed changes. There is no clarity on why the Secretary of State wants to give himself and his successors such sweeping powers. Does he intend to use them? Would Ministers be content to see a future Labour Secretary of State use them?

There are serious questions about the Bill, and so far they have not had serious answers. From CPRE’s perspective, the absence of any rural proofing is a particular concern – I raised this in my evidence to the Commons Bill Committee.

Moreover, changes to the planning system always have unintended consequences. Rather than speeding things up, the various changes in the pipeline are likely to confuse users of the planning system (who are still getting used to the last lot of changes) and slow things down.

Third, it is increasingly clear that in focussing on planning reform, the Government is missing the point. We have had over ten years of governments chipping away at the planning system. In his obsession with planning, George Osborne is slowly turning into Gordon Brown, and he often resorts to using Gordon Brown’s rather flaky evidence base[1]. But in the world outside the Treasury, people can see that planning is neither the cause of the housing crisis nor its solution.

I recently attended a private roundtable on housing with developers, developer-friendly think-tanks and pro-development local authorities. All agreed that planning was not the problem. Planning permissions for housing are up and the developers’ land banks healthy; house prices are up as the economy grows; house builders’ profits are up; the salaries and bonuses of the big builders are up; public subsidy of house building is up; yet housing starts are down.

If we seriously want to address the housing crisis, we need to look at the way the housing market works. A good place to start is CPRE’s Housing Foresight paper, Getting Houses Built. The housing bill has a few welcome proposals for encouraging small builders, but the Government’s main solution is still to give the big builders more land – more countryside – in the vain hope that they will build quickly and on the scale needed. That is what the ‘delivery test’ in the proposed revision of the NPPF is all about (para. 30).

To see delivery in action, the next time the Chancellor puts on a hard hat he should visit Ebbsfleet in North Kent, the flagship new settlement which, in spite of a high speed railway station and plenty of government money, is being built out at a glacial speed. It looks set to take about a century to build the 15,000 homes that already have planning permission. Perhaps the delivery test should apply to developers, rather than local authorities and the communities they represent.

[1] For instance, it is often said that planning costs the economy £3 billion a year. The figure was £2 billion in a CBI analysis in 1992 and was adjusted for inflation to £2.7 billion in the 2006 Barker Review. It was cited in the 2006 Barker Review of Planning. A February 2010 report from the National Housing and Planning Advice Unit said, ‘planning delays cost an estimated £3 billion a year’, a figure quoted in the Coalition’s Plan For Growth in March 2011 (para. 1.11). The figure is quoted again, with a new twist, in Fixing the Foundations. It is not clear (to me, at least) when the Treasury last did serious research on the costs and benefits of the planning system. For an alternative analysis by Vivid Economics, see Inexpensive Progress? A Framework for assessing the costs and benefits of planning reform.

This article was originally published on Shaun Spiers' blog CPRE Viewpoint

Planning has a variety of purposes, and it should not be narrowed to the single aim of building as much stuff as possible as quickly as possible.

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