The House Builders Federation and a range of other bodies such as the Royal Town Planning Institute, British Property Federation, Town and Country Planning Association as well as the CBI – all of whom expressed concerns about the dangers of what was being proposed – now have a golden opportunity to reopen the issue with Falconer's replacement, Lord Rooker.
What a contrast between the grand, waffling Falconer, and Rooker, the gritty, pragmatic and very shrewd Brummie. Although himself elevated to the ermine, Rooker understands far better than his predecessor the desire of ordinary people to live in pleasant suburban semis, not in high-density glass towers. But although housing numbers, density and design were all pretty high on the DTLR's agenda, Falconer's legacy of planning reform is the immediate challenge the industry must take up with him.
Of course, business as a whole, as well as developers, welcomed the government's interest in streamlining planning, but what emerged in the green paper last December was a controversial and overambitious overhaul of the entire system that threw out the baby with the bathwater. What most critics wanted to see were implementable reforms that would deliver planning permissions more quickly and to speed up the processing of brownfield sites, in support of the priorities in PPG3. That meant extra resources for planning departments, the ringfencing of planning fees, improvements to the organisation of planning committee agendas and sanctions against inefficient authorities. These are all difficult, dull but essential reforms – and they are what users of the system want. But, while claiming to simplify, Falconer actually proposed a more complicated system in the distant future, and total confusion from the moment the green paper was published. As a result, planning is widely perceived by applicants to have become slower and more capricious.
It is sincerely to be hoped that the CBI, BPF, HBF and others will now make vigorous representations to Rooker, seeking a rapid review of the consequences of these proposals. New ministers are able to backtrack much more easily than those who commit the original error, and the prospect of pushing through controversial, difficult planning legislation while the system on the ground falls into a black hole cannot be an appealing one for Rooker.
However, it does mean that all interested parties must make a better job than they did last year of presenting the new minister with a clear and unambiguous idea of what it is they actually want. Gordon Brown's concern that planning was an obstacle to the success of UK plc were known for at least a year before Falconer's green paper was published – which makes it all the more surprising that the submissions made by many key organisations lacked specific proposals or clarity. If they had have given a clear explanation of what was wrong with the operation of the system, they would have been irresistible to ministers – and pointed them in the direction of what needed to be done.
For example, the slow preparation and review of local plans does not mean that the whole forward-planning system should be scrapped – the conclusion that Falconer jumped to. We need to consider why local authorities do not mind having out-of-date plans or sometimes even no plan at all.
What a contrast between the grand, waffling Falconer and Rooker, the gritty, very shrewd Brummie, a man who understands far better the desire of ordinary people to live in pleasant suburban semis, not in high-density glass towers
The answer lies in something technical, but very simple, called the prematurity rule. For many years, the this held that the absence of an up-to-date plan could not be used to claim that a planning application should be refused.
In other words, the local authority faced a sanction – planning permission being granted against its wishes – if it had not done its job, and the developer avoided being held up.
This was changed overnight by a circular permitting the very opposite: now local authorities can hold up development, even of urban brownfield sites, by the simple device of not having a plan. This means that, after PPG3, in areas where the council wants no development, it is able to say that the land allocated in its plan is now inappropriate, or that the plan itself needs to be reviewed.
Therefore, until a new plan has been brought forward, it can refuse any application it chooses to on the grounds of prematurity. Thus the sanction on dilatory local authorities has been removed at a stroke. And the result? Delays in development.
That is just one example of what is crying out for reform and which could be achieved at the stroke of a pen. There are many others like it, but Falconer ignored that kind of issue. However, combing through the system and taking out that and similar anomalies will do far more to speed up planning than anything he proposed. It should also be far more attractive, politically and practically, to the new team than a massive overhaul of a system that could work perfectly well if it was made to.
Roger Humber is a housing and development specialist.