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Planner from heaven: a Welsh miracle

The Welsh strategy of investment in the planning system puts England’s to shame, says Kieran Long

Wales may not have the best reputation for architectural patronage of any small country in the world, but this week it took a giant leap ahead of its larger neighbour to the east in city planning terms.

It announced it was putting an extra £1.75 million into the planning system to improve it. The Welsh environment minister, Jane Davidson, said that the planning application process ‘…has a key role in supporting the economy of Wales. It is central in our attempts to tackle climate change, shape our communities and support sustainable economic development’.

Blimey, is that a pig flying? Here’s someone who both has political power and believes that planning can be forward-looking. This person must be unique. If giving every planning authority £70,000 seems like not too big a deal to you, put it in the context of Margaret Beckett at HM Government’s Department for Communities and Local Government. Beckett last week announced cuts in the housing and planning delivery grant of £25 million in the 2009-10 financial year, and a staggering £50 million in 2010-11.

Planning magazine reports that these cuts are being made to fund smaller rent increases for council tenants – robbing Peter to pay Paul in the hope of scoring some short-term points with voters.

More worryingly, planning authorities have been told that their priorities will now be to focus on producing five years’ worth of deliverable sites for development, despite the Royal Town Planning Institute lobbying for more priority to be given to plan-making. That means business as usual, with major housebuilders being given every opportunity to resist reforming their out-of-date model for housing production, and planning authorities saddled with being mere development control officers for another decade.

In Wales, we have a minister talking in terms that describe the aspirational planning service that we all want, and investing in it during an economic downturn to prepare for recovery. Davidson said: ‘[Local planning departments’] key role in delivering economic growth opportunities and regeneration has to be recognised and resourced appropriately – particularly in these difficult economic times.’ It’s as though she were talking about a different country.

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