However, it seems to me that the 13,000 representations will not have any fundamental effect on the government's proposals for reforming the planning system. It seems to have made up its mind that the problems are administrative and process-based, rather than substantive and issue-based. This is given more credence when there appears to be little action to stem the decline in housebuilding rates to yet lower levels – and this at a time when the Halifax is able to report an increase in house prices in May of 4.2% "fuelled by low interest rates and a shortage of property".
In the planning sector, we are expecting the government's statement on planning reform in July – although this may be affected by the post-Byers reshuffle. And the same could well be true of the now-departed Lord Falconer's working party on housing delivery. This first met on 27 May, but we shall have to wait and see if it brings forward any concrete proposals: I think most people might see it as a classic Sir Humphrey move.
There is plenty of other evidence of the increasing importance of process to the government (including reports that the government has commissioned a management consultant, rather than a property consultant, to assess the 13,000 responses to the green paper). At Barton Willmore, we are involved in three concurrent local plan inquiries in the South-west. The format of these is now seemingly based on the overriding need for local authorities, the programme officer and the inspector to generate the skeleton of the inquiry report so that the inspector can simply fill in the boxes with their decision. Meanwhile, the process becomes more and more opaque for local communities, developers and other interested parties. For one thing, local authority evidence is submitted later and later – with accompanying arguments of breathtaking inadequacy – and witnesses are produced who just seek to evade the point.
One leading planning silk told me recently that he was convinced that the merits of a case are seen as less important than the need for managerial efficiency and for a decision to be challenge-proof. However, even managerial efficiency is not being achieved, as it is blighted by the sheer volume of documentation required in such an inquiry: first deposit local plan, revised deposit local plan, pre-inquiry changes, further pre-inquiry charges, changes negotiated at the inquiry … a seemingly endless list of change and complexity.
Perhaps the change of personnel following Stephen Byers’ resignation might lead to a more receptive stance from the government, as his colleagues certainly were not open to views that contradicted their own
However, it is not just with regard to the processes of planning that the government's blindness to other points of view is evident.
At Hortham hospital, near Bristol, an application – which had been supported by the local authority – to develop a major brownfield site in the green belt was called in. The inspector weighed all the issues and recommended to the secretary of state that the development should be allowed to proceed. However, the secretary of state disagreed with the inspector on issues of fact and merit. This difference of opinion led to a legal challenge, as a result of which, the secretary of state's decision to decline the application was quashed, meaning the application will have to be re-determined.
Hopefully, this will lead to a more balanced reconsideration of the issues. Perhaps the change of personnel following Stephen Byers' resignation might help this process, as his colleagues certainly were not open to views that contradicted their own. Indeed, they have recently "spun" the lack of housing delivery by reviving the old myth of land hoarding by builders rather than looking to their own policies, which actively work against housing delivery. As the chief executive of one of the UK's largest housebuilders said to me recently: "Given the option costs, land purchase costs, planning gain costs, planning promotion costs and advance infrastructure costs involved in every site nowadays, we would be mad to hoard land: we need to crack on as fast as possible to recoup our investment."
The government is right that there is a need for a change in the planning procedures, but it must remember that implementing such process-based changes will not be enough. It will not in any way guarantee that we get the investment in jobs, homes and infrastructure that we need. The government needs to listen to the people on the ground.
Gareth Capner is senior partner in architect and town planner Barton Willmore.