Retired senior planning inspector David Vickery on the good (and very bad) news for architects
Localism (giving local communities more control over planning policy and decisions) is so yesterday’s policy. The government has decided on a new direction for planning in the Housing and Planning Bill. And that direction is centralised control and developer-led privatisation, all driven by the government’s overriding aim to get as many new homes built as possible. It’s revolution, not evolution.
The government says it is merely strengthening and revitalising the planning system. But the proposed measures go far further than the claimed ‘shot in the arm’. This is more like a heart transplant – with every likelihood the operation will be botched.
First, the good news for architects and their clients:
- Local authorities will have until early 2017 to allocate the required housing, retail, employment and other development sites in their Local Plans, or else those plans will be written for them.
- Those allocated sites in future Plans, and selected brownfield sites, will have an automatic planning permission in principle.
- Your clients will be able to choose who processes their planning application instead of the local council (there will be a pilot scheme first). I disagree with developers being able to commission favourable reports and recommendations to planning committees because local communities will perceive it as potentially biased and corrupt.
- If the council proves difficult and delays sorting out and agreeing the terms of any necessary s106 obligation, then there will be a dispute resolution option to call upon.
- For existing s106 obligations, the secretary of state will be able to restrict their enforcement regarding affordable housing in certain situations (yet to be defined, so who knows what this means?)
But, before you cheer, there is a lot of bad news. It is clearly right that local authorities should have an up-to-date Local Plan in a plan-led system. But if they don’t write it, then who will? Most other authorities don’t have the time or the staff, and those nearby could be accused of putting development in their neighbour’s area rather than their own. The Planning Inspectorate likewise does not have the staff nor the time and, in any event, it should not be doing such work when its task is to impartially assess such plans in a quasi-judicial role. And leaving it to planning consultancies is just privatisation by another name, denuding councils of their staff and expertise.
However it is done, forcibly writing councils’ Plans will inevitably lead to bitter arguments, court cases, political upheaval and public disquiet on a large scale, thereby delaying development. Where is the localism in this? Let us hope that the threat will be enough on its own, with possibly one or two punitive examples, to make Nimby councils produce their Local Plan.
And if your client’s site is not allocated in the Plan, the Planning Inspectorate will be unlikely to help you. There are a whole raft of proposals giving the secretary of state the power to tell the inspector examining the Plan what not to do, what to do, and who to listen to. The government calls this ‘a more targeted approach to intervention in plan-making’. Many councils have been upset at inspectors finding their Plan unsound, primarily due to their deliberately setting artificially low housing numbers, and this has delayed house building. So don’t expect in future an independent or impartial examination of the draft Local Plan, as it affects your client’s land.
Authorities will have a duty to promote starter homes and ensure that they are delivered on all reasonably sized sites, with provision for the secretary of state to intervene via a compliance direction if the authority fails to comply. This will limit and control the type of housing that can be built on your client’s site.
Lastly, the most controversial proposal: the secretary of state will be able to grant ‘permission in principle’ to land that is allocated in Local and Neighbourhood Plans (plus ‘registers’ and ‘other documents’). The technical details consent (reserved matters) would be dealt with later. The government has said that this will initially be limited to housing-led sites in Plans and on individual brownfield sites via ‘registers’, but it could be changed later to apply to other development, such as retail and employment.
Thus there will be a lot more at stake in the Local Plan, so you should count on yet more local opposition, more barristers, and more court challenges. And how will this benefit a developer more than a Plan allocation? The difficult detail still remains to be resolved.
Permission by ‘registers’ and ‘other documents’ appears to be a resurgence of informal bottom-drawer plans, and neither of these include any mechanism for independent examination, appeal or ministerial intervention if your client’s land is excluded.
Permission in principle brings in broad-brush zoning of land uses to the English planning system for the first time. I don’t know how such a fundamental change will work in practice or what impact it will have – and, more importantly, neither does the government, because it has published no research and it has not given anyone, let alone professional bodies like the RIBA, adequate time to consider and reflect on the implications of this simplistic quick-fix solution.
Ultimately, there could be no need for Local Plans – authorities could instead allocate sites via ‘registers’ and ‘other documents’: permission by decree.
The Bill’s planning proposals will leave local authority planning departments in a spiral of decline with local democracy bypassed, the planning system more complex and uncertain, applications and development delayed, and localism on the back burner. Add this to the Bill’s reduction in affordable housing provision and the only possible conclusion is that its key proposals are not fit for purpose.
David Vickery recently retired as a senior planning inspector and previously worked for many years in an architectural practice and in an estate agency.