No, don't yawn and stop reading. This is vital to everybody in our industry because this is the legislation by which the government intends to speed up the planning system and reduce its negative effects on UK plc.
The communities plan, discussed elsewhere, plus the bill and the changes expected to planning gain, make up a package of measures designed to produce what John Prescott and his department are calling a "step change". As Tony McNulty, under secretary at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, said in the standing committee, the bill and all these other items are a portfolio of changes that should be considered together.
So what has happened to the bill in parliament so far? It had its formal second reading on 17 December and went to a parliamentary standing committee on 9 January, where it was allowed, quite inexplicably and disgracefully, only 12 sittings, which were completed on 28 January. This is a large bill, comprising more than 80 pages, 90 clauses and six schedules. By contrast, the much shorter Hunting Bill had 20 sittings and the Proceeds of Crime Bill, for example, had 39.
The consequence of this indecent rush was that almost half of the bill was not debated, including key clauses dealing with how the new core of the planning system – local development documents – are supposed to work. This matters deeply because those parts of the bill that were debated reveal a depth of muddle and incompetence in the ODPM that even I would not have anticipated.
Under not very probing questions from opposition MPs, ministers found themselves unable to give a sensible explanation of, for example, how statements of community involvement would work in practice. This is a fundamental innovation in the bill, and could enable professional malcontents to hold the new system to ransom if not properly drafted.
The consequence of this rush was that almost half the bill was not debated – this matters deeply because those parts that were debated reveal a depth of incompetence in the ODPM that even I would not have anticipated
Ministers showed themselves equally muddled about the future of outline planning permissions, which they initially said they would abolish and replace with statements of development principle. The problem is that the value of outline planning permission is a tangible balance sheet asset, vital to developers' ability to raise development finance, whereas ministers were forced to admit that statements of development principle could be applied for en masse by the Council for the Protection of Rural England as a blocking device to prevent development. So, back to the drawing board on that – but will the next effort be any better, and how can it be tested?
Equally important to developers is the existing ability to "twin track" planning applications, so that if a local authority shilly-shallies forever on an application, a second parallel application can go to appeal. Ministers claimed that this was an abuse, but then backtracked and agreed that it was not always an abuse – that it did have value in the system. However, they still wanted to abolish it, but, like St Augustine, not yet.
Now these were the areas that were discussed in parliament. Ministers did not discuss how local development documents will work and how they are to be examined; they did not discuss the reserve powers of the secretary of state to intervene; and they did not discuss the adoption of these documents. Nor did they discuss the joint working arrangements between counties and districts to prepare local and regional plans – again, a critical change from the original proposals, which were meant to push the counties into outer darkness. And yet these arrangements are the engine room of the bill. If these aren't right, the new system will not work.
Ministers also gave very little clue as to what would be in the regulations, required to give effect to many aspects of the new system, later this year.
They have also, so far, failed to publish a number of papers promised to the committee, including research on statements of community involvement, a list of regulations to be made, and the draft of new planning gain circulars.
Roger Humber is a housing and development specialist.