Anthony Calvert was Parliamentary Candidate for Wakefield at the 2015 General Election. He is Managing Director of Calvert Communications.
On Tuesday, the the Commons debated the Housing and Planning Bill, keeping MPs working right through until the early morning and keeping Nescafe afloat with people like me glued to the TV viewing proceedings.
This Bill is quite important as it seeks to create the conditions in which the country can build the minimum 200,000 new homes every year we need just to meet projected demand. Tinkering around the edges, which we have seen in previous similar Bills, have brought little tangible improvements in housing delivery. Housebuilders are being continually hampered by bureaucracy and, increasingly, inertia within the planning system.
I have not really noticed the savings in local government budgets until fairly recently. My bins are collected as before, the grass seems to be cut at the same frequency as it always has been and local leisure centres don’t seem to have got any worse (though they have rarely been particularly good). Professionally, however, I have most certainly seen the impact. Councillors have not cut the ‘front line’ services, but rather those the voters never see and will not punish them for. In many cases this means stripping planning departments to the bone.
Last year, I wrote a paper for a number of my clients. In it we mooted how government could speed up and better resource planning applications and the rationale behind Planning Performance Agreements. PPAs are mechanisms where applicants seeking planning permission would jointly fund the scrutiny of their own schemes with local authorities. Very few people are aware that many major housing applications passed at local planning committees by councillors would not have got there had the applicant not bunged the council with a load of cash.
I noted that, although this speeds some applications up by providing more adequate resourcing, it doesn’t solve the broader problem of a chronic lack of capacity with councils affected by decisions to cut their planning departments. It is, essentially, a sticking plaster.
The Government has realised that not getting applications through planning authorities expeditiously is the main reason why we are seriously lagging behind our new housing targets. This week they resolved to sort this out by taking a blunt instrument to the problem.
Brandon Lewis announced that the Government would pilot schemes where applications could be processed outside of local authorities. Effectively this will break the in-house link between councillors and officers and applicants would have a far larger resource of professional support to process their plans through the planning system.
Naturally, the Left have excoriated the proposals, claiming that it amounts to ‘privatising’ the planning system. However, this hyperbole is misplaced.
Putting the engine of processing planning applications through professional, accredited private channels is surely a winner for all? It helps developers by getting the plans they spend huge quantities of time preparing through the planning process within the statutory 13-16 week period. It helps councils meet their own housing targets and it helps the taxpayer avoid being stung for huge costs when exasperated developers have to sue them for none-determination of their applications. It certainly tales the burden off officers, who are typically overstretched und massively under resourced.
People always hate the idea of change, and breaking the link between councillors (who will still have the final say in deciding applications) and the officers working down the corridor from them in City Hall will prove a challenge. But to stop0 the plodding managed decline of Britain, and of our property owning democracy, this change is surely worth it.