Mark Pawsey is Member of Parliament for Rugby. Follow him on Twitter.
As MPs return to Westminster after a busy summer of constituency work, many can be forgiven for thinking we are arriving back in September 2011. This time last year, the Government had just launched its major re-haul of the planning system, the National Planning Policy Framework. A radical reduction of planning law, its aim was to stimulate development and, in the process, stimulate the economy. After a period of consultation, the presumption in favour of development has returned, ridding us of the previous presumption in favour of delay, something that had curtailed development for too long. Yet skip forward a year and planning is back on the front pages.
And why? Sadly, announcements made over the weekend setting out substantial infrastructure and development proposals have been overshadowed by unsubstantiated claims about threats to the countryside. The fundamental need for growth is well understood but it won’t be achieved if we get bogged down now with more controversy about the Green Belt. What the Chancellor detailed on Sunday was simply common sense. If development is required on an area of the Green Belt, then simply, another equivalent area of land in the local area must be added to the Green Belt. Former Green Belt being swapped for new Green Belt. The net result? No reduction in the total Green Belt. In an article entitled ‘The great myth of urban Britain’ even the BBC drew attention to the fact that 98% of the UK was natural and not built-on and so this government cannot be accused of bulldozing our countryside.
However, what has happened over the last few weeks is that there has been a much-needed recognition in Government that planning goes further than planning law. We need to focus in addition on planning guidance and the delays that consultees to planning can put into the process of development. For instance, the Government’s own consultation paper in July this year detailed the number of ‘Statutory Consultees’ that are to be consulted on relevant planning applications. This list numbered 27 and includes organisations such as the “Forestry Commission”, the “Garden History Society” and the catchy “National Air Control Transport Services Operators of Officially Safeguarded Civil Aerodromes”. As their own paper says, “authorities are reluctant to determine applications without input from these key bodies”. This is where delays start. Planning is being strangled and even halted because local authorities have to wait for opinion of these bodies.
Over the summer I learnt of two cases affecting my constituency of Rugby. The first refers to a major house building site, expected to generate some 6,200 new homes – just the type of development the Government recognises is needed to push our economy forwards. This development, although compliant with the local Core Strategy, is being slowed by stakeholder agencies who are concerned with their own single issues. In the second instance a constituent of mine has applied for development of a site that is adjacent to a pond. Because of this, a full newt survey has been requested before development can proceed, even though it is known the habitat does not support newts. Again, the consequence is that development is being held up. Even post-NPPF, external bodies have this power.
So it’s planning guidance that now needs to be changed. Indeed, the Planning Minister said in a statement on the 3rd July that the next challenge after the NPPF was to “do the same” with planning guidance – some 6,000 pages on it. Whilst it is welcome news that the Government recognises this guidance needs to be changed, the question should be asked: why was this matter not dealt with at the time of the NPPF proposals? It seems odd that planning law was so radically changed whilst guidance was left alone. We will only achieve the full benefits of the NPPF once this guidance is changed too.
I am pleased that the Prime Minister has pledged to grapple with the issues that hold up development – including local opposition and planning inquiries. And the steps proposed by the Chancellor to boost growth, including a forthcoming Economy Bill focussing on reducing the time allowed for appeals and reviews to planning decisions, will certainly help both development and the economy. It is my hope that with these announcements, the kinds of delays experienced in my constituency will become a thing of the past and that we will be able to provide both the development and economic growth we badly need.