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Modernism comes to planning

Various policies are being considered by New Labour to speed up and simplify the planning process

The shadow of the Heathrow Terminal 5 (T5) inquiry hangs heavily over the government's just-launched strategy for speeding up and simplifying - 'modernising' in New Labour-speak - planning. The T5 case is into its second £100 million and looking like taking well over seven years from application to decision. What then is the essence of the government's proposals? Planning minister Richard Caborn emphasised at his press conference both the 'plan-led' approach and a commitment to democratic consultation - development will be along both of these lines.

As the new structure of planning takes hold over the next several years so the illusion that the unitary development plan is the plan in the lead will slowly dissolve. A hierarchy of policy (referred to by Caborn as 'subsidiarity') will be put in place. Regional policy is to be set (in stone) by regional planning conferences; national policies are to be made more explicit so that there is less debate on the need for a project at a public inquiry. A European dimension is being explored in the context of the uk-led European Spatial Development Perspective, reported on in my last column1.

An annex to the policy statement 'Modernising Planning'2 deals specifically with the processing of major infrastructure projects. It points out that rather than there being a single procedure (akin to that followed with T5), there are several variants: 'The most commonly used procedure for major infrastructure or national policy proposals is the planning inquiry; but the alternatives include Acts of Parliament, Transport and Works Act procedures, the Planning Inquiry Commission and the Special Development Order'.

Improving the conduct of inquiries is also considered, with reference to DoE Circular 15/96. Possible new practices are outlined, including written briefing for the inspector which would include terms of reference: 'those items or issues which the Secretary of State particularly wishes the inquiry to cover', the suggested length of time to be devoted and the date by when the Secretary of State requires the inspector's report. Challenged at his press conference as to how all this squared with his commitment to democratic consultation, the minister responded that parliament was a democratically elected body.

At the same time he launched the first of a number of consultation papers to be derived from 'Modernising Planning: The Future of Regional Planning Guidance'3. This talks of a new regional agenda incorporating regional development agencies. It aims to consider improving strategic policy at the regional level, taking account of the proposals in last December's white paper 'Building Partnerships for Prosperity', and to implement one element of the new Modernising Planning policy.

'The objective must be to put in place arrangements which bring greater openness to the procedures and which increase regional ownership of both the issues and of the policies which are adopted for their resolution'. The government wants these policies to be influenced by voluntary regional chambers acting as a distinctive voice for their regions and representing a wide range of regional 'stakeholders'. It will continue to be a function of strategic plans/guidance at the regional level to determine housing numbers and their allocation, for example.

The anticipated new arrangements for planning guidance might be different in London, in view of the green paper proposals in 'New Leadership for London' (a mayor and assembly) but the need to prepare regional planning guidance for the South East as a whole will remain.

A clear scheme emerges. Policy is stated at each appropriate level; it is 'owned' by the relevant constituency - European, national, regional or local. The scene is then set for determining planning applications within a clearly set policy context, and the jurisdiction of the local planning authority (or inspector, or Secretary of State) constrained to consider only those issues specific to the application in a way consistent with the various levels of plan policy previously determined.

The success of the scheme will depend on the clarity, acceptability and up-to-dateness of the relevant policies at every level. In practice it should significantly reduce the scope for objections, since - as now with up-to-date local plans and local policies - objectors will often be told that the issue (for example, whether a by-pass is justified in regional traffic terms, or if Heathrow be expanded in terms of national airport policy) has already been decided at a higher level.

Modernising Planning also maintains the need for a continuous search for improvements in local efficiency. It admits that it is doubtful whether even 80 per cent coverage of the country with local plans will be achieved by the end of 1998 - two years later than the 100 per cent target originally set. Measures are therefore promised to promote shorter, clearer plans and better-targeted consultation, with clear timetables to be published and local authorities to be accountable for slippage and to promote negotiation on objections ahead of the inquiry. Draft revisions to ppg12 will elaborate these messages when published shortly.

Other initiatives include encouraging wider adoption of best practice for the delegation to officers of simpler applications, the provision of training for councillors on planning committees and the review of arrangements for notifying statutory consultees. 'Modernising Planning' brings together a package of aspirations and the means of achieving them in a way that is capable of building the consensus which the planning system needs. There is little of 'the vision thing', indeed no suggestion that plans might somehow get ahead of the market and lead development as much as control it. But there is one area of innovation and this carries as many threats as promises. It does, however, promise to meet the market on its own terms.

The paper states a willingness to consider 'economic instruments and other modern tools' to help meet the objectives of positive planning. Economic instruments are defined as 'any financial incentive, tax, subsidy or tradable permit which promotes a policy objective through the operation of the market. Such measures would supplement, rather than replace, the traditional restraint and regulation of town planning'. Already in circulation is the notion that greenfield house-building might be taxed and brownfield housing subsidised as a means of encouraging a national policy preference (vat presently does precisely the opposite). The danger of distorting planning policy in such a way is obvious, though the scope for dangling fiscal carrots as well as wielding taxing sticks could be very interesting.

More probable is the validation of the dubious use of commuted payments, as with parking and affordable housing policies, and the introduction of betterment or development taxation, a solid Old Labour aspiration. Watch this space as these ideas take shape and meanwhile hope that all the speeding-up promised for future planning applications is not dissipated in complex negotiations over Section 106 legal agreements which could proliferate with the introduction of economic instruments.

Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership 0171 828 6555

Footnotes

1 The Architects' Journal, 8 January 1998, page 44

2 'Modernising Planning' reference 98DPL002 detr, tel 0181 691 9191 and http://www.planning.detr.gov.uk.

3 'The Future of Regional Planning Guidance' reference 98dpl001 detr, tel 0181 691 9191 and http://www.planning.detr.gov.uk

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