After a decade of busily making the planning system worse, the government has finally given the industry some hope that it might actually improve it.
The planning white paper, released on Monday, sets out a list of measures to reform the system on all fronts. In doing so it has more or less swallowed wholesale the recommendations of last autumn’s Barker review, apart from the thorny issue of reviewing the status of green belts.
As Barker said, there are no magic bullets for the problems of planning, and so the measures in the white paper comprise a myriad small-scale reforms. But if they were all implemented, they would give us the high-pressure hose that we need to unblock the system. For headlines, there is the decision to waive permission for domestic jobs such as conservatories and dormer windows. These account for about 50% of applications, so removing them will allow far more time to consider what really does matter, such as new housing. Another important innovation is the setting up of an independent commission to decide on the large-scale infrastructure projects that form part of a government’s “national development framework”.
Like many of the measures in the paper, this proposal would require a great deal of political courage to implement. Let’s face it: the government’s first experiment with this kind of decision-making by commission, the supercasino, did not fare well, and many MPs will be made jittery at the prospect of an unelected body foisting a regional waste incinerator onto their constituency.
In a sense, though, this publication is only the start of the journey. Unlike most white papers, it takes the form of a series of questions, rather than decisions; and there are a host of accompanying documents that have come out now, or are planned for the summer, such as guidance to make planning more responsive to economic need. But as a series of aspirations, it scores well. Imagine, for instance, cutting the appeals process from months and years to a few weeks … So the big question remains, are its ambitions loftier than its ability to implement them?
… if you don’t make a Horlicks of it
With all the activity of the planning white paper, the communities department has taken its eye off the ball concerning its other big project – the home information packs. A proposal that started life 10 years ago has now ended up in an unholy mess, and one that has left Ruth Kelly’s reputation seriously damaged, housebuyers and sellers seriously confused, newly trained energy performance assessors seriously unemployed, and the RICS with a pyrrhic victory over an initiative that it did not wholly oppose. What started out as a great aspiration has yet again taken a wrong turn on delivery.
Denise Chevin, editor