Three years on from Eric Pickles’ changes, we must help the government get planning right


In July 2010, Eric Pickles took the pen from the hands of his officials and bravely wrote out to all chief planners and council leaders that he was scrapping the regional planning system with immediate effect. 

So began the coalition government’s shake-up of planning in England, amid proud rhetoric about “not doing guidance” and “localism, localism, localism”. In due course, in came neighbourhood planning, the National Planning Policy Framework, and the Duty-to-Cooperate, each key features of the new system. But is it delivering and what’s the state of the planning system three years on?

The most notable thing about the new planning system in August 2013 is the return to guidance – slimmed-down, targeted guidance, but guidance nonetheless. “Bin stores” and “bungalows” have caught the attention of the press – and, of course, it’s easy to pick out the irony in Mr Pickles suddenly discovering a propensity for telling councils what to do (“so much for localism” we might cry). But this is important because it’s the coalition government realising at last that some degree of uniformity across the country has its merits – there are limits to localism. It seems on the face of it pretty obvious that councils should be planning to ensure the delivery of adequate storage in new homes and appropriate housing for our ageing population – but these things can and do get lost in the headline-grabbing debates about loss of greenfields and green belts. 

It’s easy to pick out the irony in Mr Pickles suddenly discovering a propensity for telling councils what to do

Moreover, provided the communities department doesn’t bite off more than it can chew (or deliver in a reasonable timescale ahead of May 2015), there is good sense in producing national standards for new homes. We’re already seeing the alternative, which is one council after another producing its own standards, upping the stakes on its neighbours in a fever of localism, and leaving the housebuilders in the soup, trying to adapt the designs that worked perfectly well last month in one district to the standards of its neighbours – hardly conducive to speeding up delivery.

So the consultation launched by Mr Pickles on new housing standards in the middle of last month and the imminent draft planning guidance (on which I’ll say more in weeks to come) deserve positive consideration. And, not least, to ensure that the law of unintended consequences isn’t allowed to run riot, as it did in the early days of the coalition’s approach to planning. After all, the at-a-stroke dismissal of regional planning has led to High Court challenges, reinstatement, confusion and delay. Indeed, it’s quite possible that the Regional Plans would have been removed a good deal more quickly had due process been followed. A genuine case of more haste, less speed.

So let’s welcome the publication of the new draft guidance and do what we can to help the government get this right.  And then I’ll turn to the things that haven’t been done so well – but that’s for another week …

Ian Tant is a senior partner at Barton Willmore

Editor’s note: subsequent to this being published, the draft guidance referred to is now on the Planning Portal and is available for comment until the 9th October 2013