Contrary to media speculation, the proposals in the planning white paper do not mark the end of democracy. In fact, as long as they’re not watered down, some of them are rather sensible
The dust has now settled on the long-awaited planning white paper, so it seems a good time to take a look at what has fuelled the vast amount of media hype about it, mostly focused on the mistaken idea that nuclear power stations are coming to a field near you without any prior consultation.
The first point to note is that, despite its extraordinary length (whatever happened to that great civil service tradition of succinct drafting?), the paper contains little by way of firm policy. It simply paves the way for further consultations, drafts and legislative/ regulatory change – all of which suggests that there is still plenty of opportunity to influence the final outcome.
The second outstanding feature is the amount of space devoted to the proposal for an independent planning commission (IPC). This dominates the few chapters at the end, but these same chapters also detail a raft of potentially helpful suggestions for improving the rest of the planning system. It would be a pity if “the great IPC idea” were to result in these other proposals being lost.
But let’s look at the IPC proposal. Beneath all the media exaggeration and prophecies of civil disobedience from the environmental lobby, there is actually a good deal of common sense. The idea of having a series of national policy statements on major infrastructure that are first consulted on publicly and then debated in parliament hardly suggests the end of democracy. These would be followed by individual planning applications, which would be subject to local inquiry, at which all stakeholders would be allowed to have their say.
The only difference with the current system is that these inquiries would be handled by a higher level IPC rather than the planning inspectorate. The IPC’s decision would be final rather than being sent to the secretary of state for final approval. But as the policy would already have been endorsed by parliament, the IPC would confine itself to looking at local environmental impact. Moreover, it would be perfectly free to decide whether the latter outweighs the national interest – in the same way as the secretary of state can under the current system. And just for good measure, the IPC would be accountable to parliament.
Of course, it won’t please everybody and there will be a need for proper compensation for those disadvantaged by nationally essential facilities – a subject on which the white paper is conveniently silent. But at the end of the day, planning and land use will always have to be an area for compromise.
Looking at the rest of the paper, there is much to welcome, particularly in proposals to give greater emphasis to the economic benefits of development. Re-examining the needs test for out-of-town retail development should also allow for a sensible level of competition, while the overall framework will continue to protect town centres.
Simplifying the planning process so that minor applications don’t clutter the system will certainly speed up the progress of very large projects. The wider use of planning performance agreements and the deployment of more resources, funded through higher fees or provided by the private sector, will help here, too. This will all be assisted by a more streamlined appeals process.
The concern, of course, is that these things are easy to say and less easy to do and we need assurance that, if accepted, the proposals will not be watered down in loosely drafted regulations and guidance.
There are, however, some glaring omissions in the white paper. There is nothing about the planning gain supplement, which continues to take up time and emotional resources in the private sector and, we suspect, real financial resources in the government as plans proceed for the expensive IT system needed to implement it. This was a lost opportunity to confirm that a policy that has almost no support among external stakeholders was going to be axed.
Also, there was nothing about the need to get to grips with the runaway system of judicial reviews which, instead of providing an appeal system of last resort, is now used as a matter of course by those who simply do not like a decision.
Whether this latest set of proposals turns out to be just another failed attempt to improve the system or a “silver bullet” that is really going to make a difference will depend on the energy, enthusiasm and single-mindedness with which the government handles its implementation. Which is why, to misquote Gilbert and Sullivan, my rapture at this stage cannot be totally unqualified.
Liz Peace is chief executive of the British Property Federation