It shouldn't really be news that the Deputy Prime Minister is in support of Government policy. But collective responsibility has been loosened a bit to reflect that coalition Government and we often see Ministers openly admitting that there are some policies they go along with only as a compromise.
In that context the passage about planning reform in Nick Clegg's speech to the LSE yesterday was significant.
There are a range of obstacles that can delay new infrastructure. Planning is most often cited. That’s going to change. Under our plans, if a development is sustainable, the starting point is: it will go through.
Socially sustainable, economically sustainable, and environmentally sustainable. Those reforms are the subject of some debate, but let me lay a few myths to rest. This isn’t anything-goes-planning, or the death of the countryside. We are putting local people in the driving seat in a way they never have been before. Scrapping top down, regional decision-making so local people can choose the areas they want developed – and those they don’t. And, crucially, making sure they get the roads, rail, housing and other infrastructure their community needs.
Often the debate is presented as pro development/anti development. That is part of the debate. But the Government proposals are also about better development. They include more power to stop bad development.
In The Guardian this morning the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has an article responding to some of the criticisms from Simon Jenkins and George Monbiot.
Eric says he wants to "take the power out of the hands of lawyers and bureaucrats and put it back in the hands of local people."
Simon Jenkins, on these pages, questioned the economic case for reform. In a survey of small firms earlier this year, the Federation of Small Businesses found that more than a third struggle with planning's cost and complexity; the British Chambers of Commerce say that seven out of 10 members feel locked out of local debate about planning proposals; the CBI said in April this year that "the pace of the planning process needs to be improved dramatically if the UK is to compete internationally". These organisations –– all membership bodies — are unanimous that the planning system holds back the growth and new jobs the country needs.
But the system is not only inefficient, it is undemocratic. With over a thousand pages of national policy, it's nigh-on impossible for a non-expert to read the rules of the game, let alone master them. Residents often feel locked out of debates where the side with the most lawyers wins. Even those who disagree with the government's specific proposals, including the National Trust – an organisation I have been a member of for many years – concede that planning is "not perfect".