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Blears set on 21st reform of Planning Act since 1947

‘The planning system is bust,’ says RIBA president Sunand Prasad. ‘But not in theory, only in practice.’

However, while Prasad believes the regime is theoretically solid – though heavily under-resourced – Hazel Blears, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, disagrees. Last week she told CABE that without substantial change the system would simply be ‘unable to do the job it was designed for.’

She followed this by announcing a start-to-finish ‘red tape busting’ review (AJ online 26.03.08) to be headed up by Joanna Killian of Essex County Council and David Pretty, the former chief executive of Barratt Developments to ‘weed out the bureaucratic hurdles’ and create a leaner, more efficient system.

In doing so, Blears has heralded yet another reform of the process and launched the 21st major restructuring of the Planning Act since 1947.

At least Blears recognises there is a major problem, says Prasad. However the RIBA president believes that yet more ‘tinkering’ is not the answer. He says: ‘The reforms enshrined in the 2004 Planning Act in theory required a more proactive approach from authorities, calling for real planning rather than simply development control.

‘Unfortunately on an operational level the system is not equipped or resourced to do the job it has been set.’

So what exactly does Blears want? Speaking at CABE’s central London headquarters last week, Blears outlined all sorts of changes, including making planning ‘more democratic, greener and more supportive of high-quality design.’

She added, though, that embedding design quality through legislation was not the answer – she said instead that good design quality would result from changing minds within planning authorities. One for CABE perhaps…

However, Blears did promise to blitz the amount of paperwork needed at application stage. Presumably this will mean that the supposedly simpler 1App ‘standard’ form, which comes into force on next week (6 April), might also come under scrutiny. Association of Chartered Architects (ACA) planning advisory group chair Andrew Rogers says the latest form – available in 26 varieties – along with revised validation procedures, could signal a ‘leap deeper into the bureaucratic mire’.

Blears’ review team is also considering a new ‘proportionate system’ dependent on the size of the scheme, which would create yet more procedural variants.

Blears wants authorities to use more technology ‘such as e-planning’ – a system which has met with varying success across the country to date. Haringey Borough Council, for example, only accepts drawings under 5MB, no larger than A3 and
only in black ink.

Overhauling the post-approval pre-build stage, with Blears citing an unknown case in London where it took 15 months after the committee go-ahead to agree conditions, is another goal.

But Matt Bell, director of campaigns and education at CABE, thinks many of the pre-application ‘bottlenecks’ identified by Blears could be addressed by the government. He says: ‘We need to resource planning teams sufficiently and reward them for building better as well as building more. Incentives matter.’

The managing director of Rolfe Judd Planning, Keith Hill, warns that the new initiatives will only succeed if ‘those responsible for producing proposals consult those in the industry as much as those involved in local government’.

He added: ‘They also need to look at limiting the degree of influence third parties have in the process – this country’s ever-increasing nimbyism.’

However as Michael Heseltine, himself a former Environment Secretary, once said: ‘There are no votes in planning reform.’ Does Blears know this? She could end up following the well-worn path, stumbled down by most of her fellow planning reformers, and accidentally make an unwieldy bureaucratic machine even worse.

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