Reorganisation of government departments means we will have to learn more than just new faces and acronyms Tony Blair's shake-up of planningrelated responsibilities last month yielded confusion and concern.
Highly paid lawyers in the new Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR) had to get busy drafting a special order to ensure that Stephen Byers, its new Secretary of State, has all the powers he needs to act in the same way as previous Secretaries of State for the Environment, in whose name planning inspectors worked and many contractual obligations exist.
Concerns expressed for some time before the shake-up still remain.
The mega-ministry that was the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR), formed around John Prescott four years ago, did finally achieve the long-sought-after integration of land use and transport but was seen to be too unwieldy and less than successful where transport was concerned.
So where is planning now? Who does what? And what are the implications of the new regime?
The core planning function now falls within the DTLR under Stephen Byers, with Lord Falconer as planning and housing minister, replacing the popular Nick Raynsford, who now covers local government.
Responsibility for regional development agencies and the construction industry falls within the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) under Patricia Hewitt. Architecture remains at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), where Tessa Jowell has taken over from Chris Smith. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) will be sponsored by both the DCMS and the DTLR.
Only time will tell how successfully the departmental interfaces will work.
The role of the regional government offices should be enhanced because it is these which will have to do the joining-up of thinking on the ground.
The biggest change will be the implementation of the subsidiarity of planning policy implied in Modernising Planning, the paper produced in the first year of the Labour government. I postulated then (AJ 12.2.98) that a hierarchy of policies would eventually emerge so that decisions would be taken at appropriate levels.
I wrote: 'The illusion that the unitary development plan is the plan which is doing the leading will slowly dissolve. A hierarchy of policy 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.'
The 'appropriate' levels may well be that the location of an airport, major road or railway, say, will be decided by Act of Parliament, with infrastructure consequences and new settlements discussed at a regional level and the detail of their implementation heaped on the local planning authority and the appeals system.
This approach is coming with a vengeance. Within days of the new government taking office, off-therecord briefings were suggesting the possibility of a new runway at Heathrow, the revival of nuclear power stations and more waste incinerators.
The more energetic use of Parliament to make the big planning decisions was seen with its recent approval of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. But this is not a new way of doing things. In the 19th century, 80 per cent of bills were privately sponsored and dealt with such matters.
The great railway projects were approved and powers of land acquisition granted in this way.
The main general change to look forward to is the involvement of the Treasury and the DTI, under the influence of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), in finding measures that make the whole planning system more responsive to the competitive needs of business.
A separation of the applications for smaller-scale schemes and larger ones, and between householder applications and commercial sector applications, would be a good start, perhaps putting the bigger schemes on a faster track.
It is also widely reported that civil servants are preparing reforms to the development plan system, thought to aim at making them shorter and far more general while limiting them to relatively local issues and allowing them to be reviewed on a more rapid cycle. This way, they will become more responsive to the dynamic economic and policy context that will be interpreted by national and regional policy guidance.
Ironically, these changes are non-partisan and have been mooted for ages, but New Labour may at last be able to carry them off, resisting the Nimby and Green lobbies in a way that was not previously thought possible. Its response to charges that there will be a 'democratic deficit' will be answered by reference to its electoral mandate and with the argument that consultation should take place at the level appropriate to the issue.
The human rights challenge to the planning system by the High Court has been overturned in the House of Lords but let's hope that it will have strengthened the government's resolve to shake it up.
Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership, tel 020 7828 6555, e-mail brian@bwcp.