Cash in your pocket or green fields on your doorstep?
Does anyone think the planning system is working? I don’t and neither do many communities and local councils. Ministers certainly don’t think so. Buried in the National Infrastructure Plan published on Tuesday are proposals for more planning reform (pdf). They are bad proposals.
One plan is to set up a specialist court to deal with planning disputes. That’s a good idea, but as with so much legislation under this government, the detail undermines the principle (for example, the Lobbying and Antisocial Behaviour bills). What the government is really aiming for here is to cut the number of judicial reviews. It even intends to take some appeals direct to the Supreme Court – a process that will bulldoze our tradition of working through a legal argument in successive courts.
What the government fails to understand is that communities are being driven to judicial reviews out of a frustration with a planning system that too often denies them an effective voice. Eric Pickles and his planning inspectors all too often tramp all over communities and these days almost anything goes when a council lacks a five year land supply or can’t get a local plan through the planning inspectorate.
The government wants to make it a statutory requirement for councils to have an up-to-date local plan. This is token gesture that will make no difference while local plans are bogged down by the convoluted planning system. Only this week, a planning inspector threw out the Mid Sussex local plan without even examining its housing targets. His argument was that the paperwork did not demonstrate that procedures had been followed correctly. Why don’t we have a system where planning inspectors help councils rather lord over them?
The government has also announced that it is to reward – some would say bribe – households for accepting development on their doorstep. What’s it to be? Cash in your pocket or green fields on your doorstep? This is nothing other than a recipe to tear communities apart as those that care for planned, sustainable development are undermined by neighbours that need to pay off their credit card bills.
So what should we do with planning?
The Liberal Democrat communities and local government parliamentary committee has recently published Planning – Problem or Solution? My contribution was tightly focused on localism.
Top of my list of my list of reforms are:
¨ We need a legal right to localism. Eric Pickles’ type interference in local decisions must be restricted to ensure that decisions are made at the most local level practical.
¨ A community right to appeal should be allowed where the local plan has been breached; the decision is in substantial conflict with the National Planning Policy Framework or other national or European policies. English Heritage and English Nature would have the same rights.
¨ The planning inspectorate should be removed to an arm’s length from the government. It must be overseen by a board drawn equally from local government; Whitehall; the planning professions; developers; and, not least, communities.
¨ We need to clarify the difference between planning policy and guidance. Of late, the government has spoken of planning guidance as being rules, policy in all but name. Guidance should a guide, no more.
Planning is always going to be frustrating. But we can achieve much more if we don’t waver over localism. And if localism is to survive and thrive, central government intervention must be restricted to matters of national importance and communities allowed to plan for their own needs.
* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Shropshire, and a former editor for Lib Dem Voice