We all agree with the department's analysis of the dire state of British town planning. The secretary of state's phrase, "a system that was intended to promote development now blocks it", should be nailed above every planning committee meeting.
But most people in the development industry believe the proposals in the green paper are half-baked and will be no real improvement. The view is that they will simply add years of transitional instability to the present system's lack of delivery.
We would all embrace statutory regional guidance that took proper strategic decisions relating to, among other things, the level and location of housing and employment provision.
A simpler "local development framework", setting out core policies against which well-based and well-presented applications can be judged and approved in a reasonable timescale, would be very welcome. But we all know this will not happen, because of a killer combination of lack of will on the part of central and local government, lack of resources and lack of sanctions.
If the government cannot approve the reasoned and lucidly expressed arguments of Professor Crowe and Roy Whittaker on the strategy for the South-east because of NIMBY pressure, it is unlikely to deliver on anything else. Indeed, the government marked the beginning of this year by backing down on the housing direction for the former Avon area – its first tentative intervention in structure plans since 1998.
As regards local government, service is slow, incredibly tortuous and a never-ending trial of negotiation for an application of even modest complexity. The green paper's specific proposals for improving the effectiveness of the system are to shorten the life of permissions, outlaw repeat applications and prevent twin-tracking. The proposal to reduce the life of permissions to three years is simply barmy when sites are becoming more complex and comprehensive mixed-use schemes are the order of the day.
The proposals in the green paper are half-baked and will make no real improvement on the present system. Instead, they will simply add years of transitional instability to the current system’s lack of delivery
The appropriate response would be to lengthen permissions to about seven years.
The green paper berates repeat applications and twin-tracking for "wearing down opposition" and "wasting resources". As the green paper came out, my company was heading for an appeal on a brownfield site in the middle of a prosperous northern city, which the city council has failed to determine in 10 months. The repeat twin-track application for the same development was permitted in three weeks, the day before the start of the appeal. Repeat applications and twin-tracking are the only levers an applicant has to focus the mind of an often under-resourced and recalcitrant authority. Far from wasting resources, twin-tracking actually saves them in the long run.
I think the industry is of a similar mind in respect of the planning obligations paper and its proposed introduction of a tariff system.
The initial reaction is that this is a simple, certain payment that can be deducted from the land price, paid to the authority and off you go. However, it soon becomes pretty clear it is just a tax and there is still scope for other obligations to be piled on. You get the worst of both worlds. In the end it is better to stick with the current system, which at least allows you to negotiate benefits that directly stem from your development.
Setting aside the disadvantages of the proposed system in principle, there is a raft of operational issues to sort out. Setting the tariff locally would lead to inconsistency and the potential for abuse. In Berkshire, the tariff for residential development would probably be set at many thousands of pounds per square metre, whereas job-creating developments would probably be set at a lower level to reflect the historic "love jobs, hate homes" approach there.
There is also the likelihood that the tariff may be set as a proportion of development value, which would not necessarily reflect the actual impact of the proposal and would lead to endless debates about valuation. The consultation paper is unclear as to whether the tariff will be set within the statutory local development framework or through another document. As the industry has found to its cost in Oxford, obligations that are not reflected in the original land deal can be increased by the simple mechanism of supplementary planning guidance, with minimal consultation. Finally, it is unclear whether the tariff will be levied on the grant of planning permission or, preferably, on phased implementation, especially for large schemes.
Gareth Capner is senior partner of architect and town planner Barton Willmore.