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Cllr Ricky Bower is an East Preston Ward Councillor on Arun District Council. He is a former Cabinet Member for Planning and Chairman of the Development Control Committee.
The Planning White Paper is predicated on the assumption that there is something wrong with the planning system, which slows the increase in housing completions.
I’ll start with this fallacy. According to the Local Government Association, there are 400,000 houses with planning permission that have yet to be commenced. In my own authority there are 4,000 such permissions.
So, if obtaining planning permission is not the problem (and the LGA has proved it isn’t) where is the blockage? I contend it is outside the control of the local planning authorities. Most planning permissions are issued on the conclusion of section 106 agreements being negotiated to cover all the required infrastructure and community benefit needed to support new developments.
Back in 2006, I was discussing with Cllr Gordon Keymer (then a leading member on the LGA) how a future Conservative Government could replace the dreaded Regional Plan system without returning to the County Structure plan process. I suggested each local planning authority should be obligated to make agreements with one or more other local planning authority to address strategic and cross-border issues. The Coalition Government, to my delight, included the ‘Duty to Cooperate’ in the changes to the planning system that followed. Only they made the duty horizontal when I think it should have been vertical as well. That is to say, the same duty should have been placed on infrastructure providers.
All too often it is these infrastructure providers who cause damage to the planning system and harm the reputation of the planners. They have different business plan periods to the duration of a Local Plan. They have significant staff turnovers, so those who have negotiated Section 106 agreements with planning applicants are no longer with the same organisation when it comes to delivering on the agreement. Consequently the commitment is reviewed and sometimes changed to the detriment of the overall planning permission.
In my experience the worst offenders are the Primary Care Groups who assess their needs against a developing Local Plan, state how many new or expanded surgeries they need only to find some existing surgeries close because of retirements or some other reason. Likewise, education providers have an alarming habit of constantly recalculating the school-age population and thus reassessing their new-build needs against new developments – only to redirect their Section 106 resources away from the new development to expand some other existing provision.
Highways authorities are notorious for desk-top exercises when considering access issues. As for those responsible for drainage and waste water, the least said the better! Affordable housing contributions are usually built into the original planning application to a level that conforms to the Local Plan and is normally met early on.
It seems rare to find all the infrastructure providers on the same page as the developer, at the same time. Is it any wonder that developers sit on their approved schemes constantly reassessing the viability and hoping for an uplift in land values?
The White Paper is suggesting the removal of the Duty to Cooperate from Local Plans. This is a huge mistake. Removing the duty will overnight make all Local Plans non-compliant with Government policy and the last ten years will have been wasted. Many Local Plans have end dates beyond 2030 so there should be no rush. However, the proposal to reduce the lifespan of a plan to five years is welcome, together with the reduction in evidence gathering that would follow. It would also follow that the business plans of infrastructure providers would be more likely to be in line with Local Plans. Nevertheless, the replacement of some localised parts of a Local Plan with national or regional based policies raises an important question about the democratic accountability of such policies. Smells like the centralised or regional planning we got rid of back in 2010.
A revision of the Manual for Streets would be popular, particularly outside the Met areas. All too often it is used by highway authorities to respond to planning applications with ‘no comment’ or ‘the proposal complies with Manual for Streets’ so local knowledge of road conditions is overruled. When applied to new large-scale developments, we often end up with a large amount of on-street parking and roads meant as bus routes being unable to give access to a fire appliance. Of course, in Unitary LPAs the same elected members can have direct democratic control of Highways Departments and most local planning authorities are not highways authorities. Only today my LPA has had its recently adopted development parking standard nullified by a Planning Inspector’s decision (with costs) where off-street under provision was judged to be outweighed by on-street availability.
So, my response to the White Paper is ‘Planning – keep it local’.