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Modernising planning

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Despite the government's latest proposals to speed up planning, the restructuring that is required still seems a long way off

In case we needed reminding, we are nearing mid-term for the new government. This manifests itself in planning, as in much else, with a torrent of new initiatives, targets, and draft guidance. Invariably these promotions are about the process rather than the product. Try the Planning Concordat just launched by detr and the Local Government Association1, the Beacon Council Scheme (detr)2, or the draft ppg note revisions for development plans and regional guidance3.

All these come complete with worthy (or wordy) statements of the motherhood- and-apple-pie variety about speeding up planning and delivering a better service. When does apple pie turn to custard pie? Perhaps when John Prescott issues a press release (12 January) saying: 'It is not good enough that we still have a third of local planning authorities in England without an area-wide plan for their area . . . It is also disappointing that average local-authority performance in determining planning applications remains at 62 per cent of applications determined in eight weeks.' Especially when every Concordat, Best Value statement, or piece of draft guidance opens with the mantra of commitment to the plan-led system and speeding up delivery.

Planning minister Dick Caborn gave an affable but tough performance when talking to local-authority representatives at the launch of the Concordat. He fended off the inevitable whingeing about speedy decisions not necessarily being the best decisions by quoting a manufacturer in a high-tech industry which had just announced 350 redundancies. He explained to the minister that his product used to have a shelf-life of years; now it was down to months and getting ever shorter. In his business he could not wait on a planning system grinding slowly when he had to move fast to maintain his business.

'Best value', another mantra of Modernising Planning, came under critical onslaught from Simon Jenkins. Writing in The Times about the performance of the auditors' watchdogs in the Maxwell affair, he likened it to best value, which he defined as 'the triumph of the measurable over the important'. Sounds like 'value engineering' to me.

There's no harm in putting pressure on the process to keep it on its toes, but the real battle will be to achieve the motherhood objectives with less, not just better, government at every level. In his new Economic Research Council pamphlet4, Russell Lewis suggests that the planning system made land costs higher to the extent that real incomes were reduced in 1983 by four per cent and aggregate cost is now as much as ten per cent of national income. Have the results been worth this sacrifice? (See box)

Necessary as they are, exhortations to local government by central government will not bring about the radical changes needed to modernise planning. The number of volumes in the Planning Law and Practice encyclopaedia was four in 1979, six in 1997 and now, I can report, has been joined by a seventh after fewer than two years of Modernising Planning.

What is the way forward? The whole system needs to be restructured in its process, both top-down and bottom-up. At the same time, it needs to be blown apart with lateral, cross-border and visionary thinking. Modernising Planning should eventually make progress with its top-down restructuring by more use of decisive central-government policy-making on airports policy and the emergence of regional development plans with wide-ranging inputs through regional 'chambers'. A hierarchy of plans will become established, capable of limiting the scope of local plans and appeal inquiries on the basis of subsidiarity. But for this to work the plans have to be in place and up to date. Land allocations for housing based on the inadequate coverage we now have may not offer much encouragement but should strengthen resolve.

Apart from hammering on about eight-week performance, little is being done to restructure the process from bottom up. But there is great scope for flushing the preponderance of smaller, routine applications through the system, releasing resources for the more difficult cases. Already a fair number of authorities delegate more than 90 per cent of decisions to officers, but the eight-week statistics are being distorted by cheating.

More radically, I am optimistic that the proposals of the Urban Task Force (and possibly those for London's new mayor) may blow the system apart with lateral thinking. Its potential potency is being recognised not just by the green-belt nimby brigade and the New Towns movement. They have now been joined by a 'revive our declining suburbs' campaign.

Between them these cover just about everywhere, and the potential for effective linkages between (urban) design, fiscal measures, development agencies, environmental, transport and land-use planning setting up a whole new paradigm becomes evident. Watch this space.

1Planning Concordat from the Local Government Association, 0171 664 3045.

2The Beacon Council Scheme: prospectus, see www.local-regions.detr.gov.uk.

3ppg 11 Regional Planning Guidance, ppg 12 Development Plans, both from 0870 1226236, see www.nd.coi.gov.uk; consultation ends 30 April.

4The Deadweight State by Russell Lewis, pub Economic Research Council, £10 from 239 Shaftesbury Ave, London WC2H 8PJ.

Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership: 0171 828 6555/ brian@bwcp.demon.co.uk

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