Eric Pickles MP is Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
One of the glories of this country is its fantastic buildings and architecture. You can see our history reflected in our towns and cities through our Tudor Houses, Baroque Cathedrals, to the Victorian Gothic Houses of Parliament. And even more than our famous buildings, we value our own homes. Be it our first one-bedroom flat, a semi detached for a new family or a retirement cottage. Well-designed, sustainable homes and estates are places that we love and stand the test of time.
But today incredibly housebuilding is at its lowest peacetime level since the 1920s. We have a planning system mired in acrimony and bitterness. Thanks partly to a decade of bullying regional bureaucrats imposing housebuilding targets the whole concept of planning is viewed with hostility. It’s not about people thinking ahead and making the right choices for their community. It’s wrangles over individual developments. We have got to a point in our history at which people are in default mode, automatically thinking that anything proposed to be built must ruin the look and feel of the area.
But we need to get the country building again and people backing the right kind of development. The current system is holding back UK growth and jobs. As well as a new generation of would-be home owners. We need to make the system easy to navigate – not a legal maze. Research from Reading University suggests the costs associated with development control are up to £3billion a year. So I’m delighted that last week’s Budget sets out a raft of measures for my department to unblock our complex, costly and adversarial planning system.
In the last five years alone the previous Government spurted out 3,250 pages of national planning guidance that overburdened the system to the point of breakdown. Amazingly Councils spent 13 per cent more on planning last year than they did five years ago, despite a 32 per cent drop in the number of applications received.
We’re using some common sense and condensing the near 900,000 words of unwieldy national planning policy into one easy to use document called the National Planning Policy Framework – out later this year. And new measures streamline the information required for an application and reduce the complexity of the consents developers need to build. There will be a planning guarantee that applications will not have to spend more than 12 months with decision makers where a timely appeal is made.
We will cut red tape too. For instance at the moment any developer who wants to change vacant and derelict offices into new homes has to apply for planning permission to change the use of the land. With plenty of empty office blocks and warehouses lying around while we desperately need to build new homes this is the kind of bureaucracy we can do without. Another big barrier to development is the shortage of land with planning permission. So we will pilot a scheme to auction parcels of public sector land with planning permission. And while the last Government abdicated responsibility, we are returning democratic accountability to applications for major infrastructure projects but will keep a fast track system.
Primarily where it’s the right kind of development we want councils and communities to be saying yes as a default answer. However let me be clear we are committed to maintaining the strong protections for greenbelt land, areas of outstanding beauty, and sites of scientific interest. The New Homes Bonus is already giving communities a financial incentive to build new homes. Now a presumption that the planning system will say yes to sustainable growth will give developers and investors much greater certainty about the types of application likely to be approved. And communities will get certainty too – that the wrong type of development will get an unequivocal no.
The last Government's blind faith in targets led to perverse results such as garden grabbing. A green light to the destruction of the green belt. We are giving councils greater freedom and greater flexibility, the chance to be in the driving seat. And they have got to be prepared for the responsibility that comes with that. They need to work with their communities, press ahead with local plans and help stalled developments get going again.
Most of all we will have a system that encourages local people and businesses to work together. And this democracy must not come at the cost of delays. Neighbourhood plans will involve every part of the community, businesses as well as residents, right from the outset planning what they want their area to look like. More agreement upfront will mean far fewer wrangles later on.
Localism and growth goes hand in hand here. The more local people and businesses participate, the more likely it is that development takes place. So there will be no Whitehall knows best arrogance. Instead this Budget sets out a planning system that is simple, democratic and a driver for growth.
My department will see these reforms through – and I am sure local communities will take every advantage, to build the homes and create the jobs they need.