Last night the Bill was finally published, and now we can see the full extent of the challenges ahead
The wait is finally over. The Localism Bill has been laid before Parliament and the government’s proposals for the planning system are becoming much clearer. Its publication was, however, unfortunate in that it only became available after 6pm and only in parts.
What we know is that the Bill is not as large as some had predicted. It runs for some 207 clauses, with 24 Schedules and is divided into 31 Parts.
At first glance it appears to be a rag bag of measures designed to deal with specific issues that have proved problematic for the coalition – the abolition of regional strategies, the Infrastructure Planning Commission and home information packs being just three emblematic examples.
But a first glance creates a false impression as there is a clear and detectable underlying political philosophy which suggests that this Bill is aimed at bringing about the most radical change to the planning system since the Town and Country Planning Act 1947. If passed and implemented it will create new challenges for all those who engage in the planning process.
The Bill is seen as an important strand in the coalition’s plans for the Big Society. Its central theme is decentralisation – taking power from Whitehall and returning it to local communities. But there lies its biggest danger. For localism can be easily hijacked by nimbyism. The government recognises this on page 3 of its Essential Guide to the Bill (published a few hours earlier) but its response is far from convincing. Ultimately this may prove to be the Achilles heel.
The Bill has shied away from a wholesale reform of the planning system. The last Labour government undertook two such exercises, in 2004 and 2008, and neither was much of a success. Instead it created an overly bureaucratic and centralised system that, in many ways, has given birth to localism.
Part 5 deals with planning and runs to just 32 clauses and many of these merely amend existing statutory provisions. A new concept is introduced in Chapter Three – the neighbourhood plan – but the detail is contained set out in Schedule 9. How these plans will fit in with the existing development plan framework (which will no longer include regional strategies) is far from clear. One major concern for landowners and developers must be the retention and modification of the Community Infrastructure Levy which gives greater scope to local authorities.
The already complex system introduced by the last Labour government in the Planning Act 2008 and the 2010 Regulations is here to stay and the implications for all concerned are profound. Unfortunately, from them perspective of the development industry these proposals could not have come at a worse time when there is little reason or appetitive to challenge local authorities over the setting of the levy.
Two other changes could have significant impacts. The Community Right to Build appears fraught with difficulty and could be a source of local discord rather than empowerment. Allied to this are proposals in Chapter 5 in relation to retrospective planning permission and planning enforcement orders.
Many will welcome the abolition of the Infrastructure Planning Commission and its replacement with a new democratically accountable system for nationally significant infrastructure projects.
It remains to be seen how the Bill will fare on its passage through Parliament but both parties in the coalition promoted broadly similar policies for the planning system. What is welcome is that the Bill does not seek wholesale changes to the planning system but the changes that are to be made may prove to be the most profound since 1947.
Martin Edwards is a barrister at ThirtyNine Essex Street Chambers