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Robert Adam: These Tory reforms could do more harm than good

The Tory green paper might be radical but that’s not entirely a good thing

As a Conservative supporter, I had hoped that the Party’s policy green paper on planning would reform a clumsy and wasteful system. I’m sure it’s well intentioned, and it may be radical, but it’s a classic case of the law of unintended consequences.

‘Decentralisation of power is a core principle for the Conservative Party,’ states the paper, and the aim is to push decisions and responsibilities down to a local level. But, in the rush to blame Labour, there’s an underlying assumption that all the problems with bureaucracy and delay are at government and regional level, forgetting that

local authorities are also enthusiastic creators of bureaucracy and delay. Controllers like to control and, unless stopped, if one level of control goes the vacuum will be quickly filled.

There is some good stuff in the paper: the removal of a layer of regional government is probably sensible; a fixed tariff instead of endless Section 106 negotiations is long overdue; a conservation credit system, rather like carbon credits, is an interesting idea if undeveloped. It’s very good to see a reinstatement of ‘presumption in favour of development’ – albeit with a politically correct ‘sustainable’ tacked on – but it’s hard to square what amounts to a restoration of property rights with the ideas that follow. And a lot of what does follow is very worrying.

There’s talk of promoting ‘the highest standards of architecture and design’, but, since you’d never say the opposite, this doesn’t mean much. It’s proposed that there will be ‘national’ and ‘local architectural standards’ – I’m not at all sure what such things might be, but it looks pretty frightening. 

There’s the bizarre idea that you can buy quickie consent by paying off your neighbours to ‘compensate’ them, so creating a whole new market in non-objection. This is part of one of the core principles of the green paper – so called ‘collaborative planning’. ‘Enquiries by design’ and ‘charrettes’ (which I don’t think they realise are the same thing), are suggested for large proposals. Well, we do these and, if they’re voluntary and run by enthusiasts, they can work well, but they take months and they’re very expensive. If such things become compulsory and routine they’ll soon turn into bureaucracy and delay. 

Then there’s a proposal for third party right of appeal. They have this in Ireland; at best, it delays the de facto consent date while you wait for the appeals to roll in; at worst, causes more delay and uncertainty.

Add all this up and far from an intended decrease in uncertainty, complication, delays, expense and bureaucracy, there’s likely to be more. This is part of a manifesto for localism but, unless a very hard look is taken at what is likely to happen locally, it will confound rather than cure our broken planning system.

  • Robert Adam is director of Robert Adam Architects

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