Is the coalition’s reform of the planning system a canny solution, or will it backfire?

Ponder this predicament a second: you’re the leader of a political party whose grass roots strongly favour the environment and conservation. But you’re in power, and you have neither the economic growth nor the ready cash to dig your country out of the financial hole it’s in.

Clearly these pressures apply to both parts of the coalition government. Conservation calls for more regulation and curbs on development, whereas the solution to escaping the economic straitjacket (for free market thinkers, at least) is the exact opposite: cut red tape, thereby stimulating growth without having to spend government cash. How, politically, can you satisfy both constituencies? Well, you might come up with exactly the plan the coalition has outlined for reform of the planning system.

It’s hard to think of a time in the past decade when the planning system, or at least some aspect of it, was not under profound review. The Communities Plan, the 2004 Planning Act, Kate Barker’s planning review, David Pretty’s planning review, Section 106, the planning gain supplement, now the Community Infrastructure Levy - the reviews and initiatives are simply too numerous to mention. Politically, messing with the planning system is a victimless crime. Unlike doctors or teachers, planners are broadly disliked by everyone (maybe not as much as journalists), because they’re involved in the messy business of compromise, where neither developer nor protester ends up feeling like they’ve got their way. Which means politicians feel they have to keep changing the system.

You give the anti-development forces the power to take the decisions, but within a system that favours their opponents. That’s pretty canny

The coalition’s changes allow it on the one hand to satisfy its core constituencies by allowing the number of homes and the amount of development planned for in a community to be decided at a local level. It’s a measure which has broadly terrified developers, with some, such as Cala Homes, frightened enough to launch legal challenges against the policy.

But with last week’s launch of the National Planning Policy Framework they’re now meeting the business lobby’s concerns. Although decentralisation minister Greg Clark won’t admit it, the framework prioritises economic growth above other factors. Yes, there are still lots of areas the housebuilders would love to change, but the presumption in favour of sustainable development, combined with the New Homes Bonus councils will receive for giving out planning permissions, look like powerful pro-growth incentives.

So you give the anti-development forces the power to take the decisions, but within a system that favours their opponents. You can’t deny that, as a political fix, it’s pretty canny. The question is whether it’s more than a political compromise. Will this be the blueprint for a new era in which sustainable development is genuinely prioritised, without unnecessary bureaucracy and interference? Or is this just an expedient fix which could end up with the worst of both worlds: rich areas where housing demand is greatest continuing to block development because they can live without the new homes cash, while lower quality development, in potentially unsustainable places, gets through everywhere else?

The answer won’t be known for some time, but now, with the belated publication of the NPPF, we can at least start to have an informed debate.

Joey Gardiner, assistant editor