The planning process has come under heavy criticism by Ministers in the last few weeks with Cameron, Cable and now Pickles blaming the system for holding the economy back. Criticism is justifiable but nothing new. Back in 2004, Kate Barker’s comprehensive review of the housing system for HM Treasury estimated planning bureaucracy cost the economy £2.7bn every year.
The process is highly bureaucratic, expensive and riddled with uncertainty. The trouble is that whilst problems with planning are easy to identify, finding a solution which is politically acceptable has proved more elusive.
The Localism Bill which includes planning reform is now at an advanced stage in its passage through the House. The property industry’s verdict of the proposals have been apathetic at best, wholly negative at worse. Their view is the Bill does little to simplify and speed up the system.
Such a verdict is disappointing. The Coalition’s mission is to engineer a private sector recovery to fill the gap left by the public sector. Indeed, the Government’s political survival depends on it. Planning has a key role to play in this revival but whilst there are elements of the Bill which are welcome, more can be done.
The good news is it’s not too late. There is still time to amend the Bill and make it more growth focused. Here are three suggestions to help foster growth whilst maintaining the Bill’s localist aspirations.
First of all, it is frightening how much information is necessary to support a major planning proposal. Planning permission should first and foremost be about principles and if the principles are acceptable than the minutiae can be worked out later. Currently, much documentation deals with implementation. Such information should be provided once a planning permission has been attained when the certainty and value is established. A clause should be included in the Bill which sets more explicit guidelines as to what information is needed up front, and what can be offered as a condition upon approval.
Secondly, the Bill needs to do more to give local business a voice in the community. Why not allow local businesses along with residents to vote on who their Chair of Planning should be? That way you instantly bring in an electorate with a different interest: the interests of the local economy. These new style chairs would still of course be political but I would argue that the successful candidates will be far less exposed to the nimby interests which can conspire against some proposals.
Thirdly, planning policy needs to become much more flexible around requirements such as affordable housing. Many proposals across the country are currently on ice because they cannot meet Town Hall requirements for affordable housing provision. A policy which requires forty percent affordable housing is forty percent of nothing if it renders a housing proposal unviable and such policies overlook an important fact: often a planning permission will be given but then a gap can exist for several years before construction starts.
The economy can change dramatically in such time and a proposal which might have delivered very little affordable housing when originally approved could very well afford a higher proportion when it comes to being built out. In Wandsworth, we have begun locking developers into such a viability test. When a developer comes to implement a planning permission the potential now exists to review the provision and seek an increase in affordable housing provided above a specified floor. This way planning becomes more flexible and responsive to the economic environment.
Overall, planning reform can go much further to promote growth without inhibiting the localism agenda. I have touched on several aspects but there is so much that can be done whilst maintaining a system which in principle is fundamentally sound. Let’s hope the opportunity for further amendments in the Bill is not lost.