So, something must be done – up to a point. However necessary and long overdue radical reform of the planning system may be, it is politically undeliverable. Anyone doubting that should reflect on the fate of the Dobry Report of 1975, which contained proposals very similar to those being advanced by the CBI. Planning is more of a political hot potato than the NHS and education reform rolled into one, and reformers need to pay strict regard to what is politically deliverable.
The world is divided into two kinds of people. A minority of us connected with the development industry know how the planning system works, use it regularly and find it capricious, unpredictable and inefficient. Most of the population doesn't understand the planning system but knows that it doesn't like what it produces. Not only that, most people seem to think that those involved in planning are part of a wicked conspiracy against them, and what we call inefficiency is the system's only virtue. That view is shared by virtually all members of both Houses of Parliament.
So our problem will not be solved by advocating a desirable and sensible list of changes to produce a better climate for business and UK plc, as the CBI has just done, or even by announcing the need for "significant improvements in the processes for determining planning applications to ensure that the system strikes the right balance between economic and environmental considerations", as Gordon Brown has done. Indeed, there is a risk that the very pursuit of these sensible objectives could stir up a hornets' nest and put back the cause of reform by yet another generation.
Is there any hope then? Well, not much. But so appalling is the performance of the system, and so dramatically has it deteriorated in the last couple of years, that a series of minimalist measures – with no hint of a fundamental policy change – might just achieve the simple result of slightly reducing the time it takes to get implementable planning consent. That alone would be worth millions of pounds to the development industry.
My modest package of proposals would include more work on the best value agenda, making serious, presubmission consultations mandatory and encouraging the development team approach to secure better internal co-ordination of planning, highways, building control and other local authority departments. Housebuilders encountering local authorities with such an approach report very positively on its effects.
Most people seem to think that those involved in planning are part of a wicked conspiracy against them
And we must address the resource issue – particularly the shortage of planning and legal staff, which enables local authorities to blame delays in processing planning applications and planning gain agreements on the Treasury. That means finding ways in which applicants can provide more resources to the system – without appearing to buy planning permission or to influence decisions – rather than simply speeding up planning processing. Bluntly, such an approach will cost developers money, but it will be cheap at the price.
But we should also be bold enough to widen the attack on inefficient processes to include procedures in PPG3 like "plan, monitor and manage", which only serve to slow down plan preparation and the handling of applications.
If my approach was followed, it may be said that the great planning review announced by the chancellor had become no more than a whimper. Possibly, but the road to planning reform is paved with good intentions and has previously ruined political careers (ask Patrick Jenkin) and those of senior civil servants (I will reveal no names).
The civil servants in the DTLR know full well the political risks in making wholesale changes in planning for the benefit of business. Even now, I am sure they are preparing elephant traps for the Treasury to blunder into as it enthusiastically attempts to reform the system – just to teach Brown a lesson.
Roger Humber is a housing and development specialist.