Benedict McAleenan is a former Conservative Agent and currently works in Public Affairs at Edelman.
The planning system is, at its most basic level, a state regulator that controls the supply of a raw material called ‘land’. It decides how (and how much) land can be used. Over many decades it has helped to strangle the supply of land and created a massive housing shortage that now pits my generation against the baby boomers. Ignore Help to Buy and foreign investors: prices are rocketing because we aren’t building enough homes and the rigid planning system is getting in the way.
Deregulation has been a priority for the Coalition and, based on what Number Ten’s housing guru Alex Morton has written on this blog in the past, it will be a theme in the next Tory manifesto. A good start would be to help planning teams to become mutuals.
The star in the world of the mutual has been the Cabinet Office’s ‘Nudge Unit’. The behavioural insights team was so successful in using clever economics and sociology to cut public sector costs that governments around the world, as well as charities and companies, started to buy its services too. So the team was mutualised, with ownership split equally between the Government, the innovation charity Nesta and the unit’s own employees. Now it’s free to provide services and innovate in a way that isn’t possible when you’re just another cog in the Whitehall machine – especially one that a future government might happily leave to rust.
Allowing local planning teams to do the same thing would let them hire out their expertise and resources to other authorities. Provided that government retains a significant stake in each mutual to keep sight of its raison d’être, there are huge gains to be made. Mutualised planning teams could develop and sell world-leading expertise, for example in heritage, or rural, or high-rise, or low-energy development. They could be called on to make recommendations based just on the merits of an application without all the local prejudgements and biases that an in situ team might bring. That would mean land was treated more as the commodity that it is. And the really bread-and-butter stuff of planning, like applications for conservatories and loft conversions, could be outsourced in bulk rather that occupying swathes of local authority time.
This doesn’t mean councils lose control over policy. In fact, it means the opposite. At the moment, planning departments have to juggle a reactive role (processing planning applications and making recommendations on them to councillors) with the proactive planning job of formulating policy for inclusion in local development frameworks (LDFs). Both are big, expensive jobs. If councils were able to let someone else deal with most of the planning applications, they could get on with creating better policy. In his recent report on improving our built environment, architect Sir Terry Farrell called for a more proactive approach to planning, instead of just responding to ad hoc applications. This is one way to achieve that.
Planning teams are often full of brilliant, creative minds. A planner has to be a heady mix of architect, technician, economist, geographer, politician and historian. They could do a lot with a little more freedom. And they will have to find new ways of working if they’re going to cope with ongoing cuts. To date, about 46 per cent of the Coalition’s fiscal tightening programme has been implemented (see page 14 here). But much of that has been in tax rises. Remember the Chancellor’s 80:20 rule for balancing deficit reduction between lower spending and higher taxation. It all means a very big chunk of cuts haven’t even been announced yet. And just because local government has already taken a battering doesn’t mean it’s going to be spared in the coming years.
It was the last Conservative Government that relaxed rules allowing councils to trade with each other. Now they buy and sell services from each other all the time, from car park management to gyms. My local gym – clean, well-equipped, affordable – is run for Lambeth Council by a charity that started as a wing of Greenwich Council and now operates 115 libraries and leisure facilities across the country. In 2010 it won the Prime Minister’s Big Society Award. More recently, Conservative authorities have entered into significant sharing arrangements such as the tri-council approach of Westminster City Council, London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham and Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. There is huge scope for loosening the way local services are shared.
The Big Society was mis-sold as some sort of huge volunteering project. In fact, it was meant to be a revolution in the way public services are provided. It was supposed to give more freedom to innovate, more varied ownership structures and new ways to save money. With mutuals, it can do all of those things for the planning system. For the sake of anyone who dreams of buying a home, we should let it.