The green paper came with the ambitious promises of increasing the speed and efficiency of the planning system and at the same time boosting community involvement in it. Although the proposals set out in December's document try hard to reconcile these conflicting aims, the development industry argues there will be extra costs and hurdles, while pro-consultation campaigners feel calls for more democracy have been ignored.
In all, the list of people, organisations and industries affected by the proposed changes is staggeringly long. It includes environmentalists and airport authorities, housebuilders and regeneration organisations, clients and design bodies. And none of them seems to be happy …
Out with the old problems, in with the new
The development industry initially cheered the government's early calls to streamline and simplify a planning system long considered user-hostile. But the subsequent raft of proposals has led to widespread disappointment and a sense that they will do nothing to address the inefficiencies in a planning system that is the most expensive in the European Union.
"Lord Falconer [the planning minister] has picked out the faults well and the development industry agrees with practically all of the criticisms he makes," says Brian Salmon, planning executive of housebuilder the Berkeley Group, "yet it is becoming clear that most of the current system will remain in place. And although the green paper talks about simplification and wants to remove some of the duplicated processes, it adds others elsewhere. It will be just as complex, if not more so."
At local level there is enthusiasm for stripping away the encrusted layers of structure plans, local plans and unitary development plans and replacing them with a single "local development framework". But although this change weeds out some unnecessary complexity, the frameworks will include new processes, called action plans and "statements of community involvement". Experts argue that these requirements are going to add a lot of drag to the system. The action plans, for instance, are designed to identify development sites and recommend suitable schemes, yet the idea that these can be prepared or changed at any time is causing significant scepticism. Salmon says: "If there is continual revision, it means something can be reviewed out of local plans at the drop of a hat. There is no certainty in such a system."
Meanwhile, at regional level, the current system of regional planning guidance is to be replaced by regional spatial strategies. The green paper claims that these will be wide-ranging and representative, but one industry commentator dismisses them as "just a name change – and not a very good one".
The concern is that switching from one to the other will create short-term organisational problems, especially as county councils are squeezed out of the process. Although they will look after minor aspects, such as minerals and waste planning, the spatial strategies will be drawn up by as yet only vaguely defined regional bodies.
Another worry for developers is that local authorities will jump on the green paper's proposals and motor them into action before anything is formally ratified. Some cite the possible ban on twin-track applications. This controversial measure, described by one commentator as a "vindictive anti-developer side-swipe", would outlaw two schemes being submitted for the same site at the same time – something that has allowed continued negotiation with councils while an application approaches appeal. There is concern that the green paper now gives councils an excuse to reject applications brought forward this way.
There is also widespread criticism that, despite the broad coverage of the green paper, some key objectives have simply not been addressed. The most significant is the skimpy attention given to planning rules for regeneration schemes. "The priority should have been administrative change, especially on the brownfield land issue," says Robert Jones, chairman of Redrow. "At the moment, contrary to government policy, developers take just as long, if not longer to sort out planning here than they do on greenfield sites. There should have been more attention to sort this."
Similarly notable for its absence is detailed information on the increased resources needed to implement the mooted structural reforms. The green paper demands that those local authorities that are failing to process planning applications within a set time improve their performance, yet does not mention any extra money or manpower. "There is a fundamental problem of resourcing, and the green paper has very little to say about this," says Gary Halman, president of the RICS' planning faculty. "Increasing planning fees 14% in April will not make much difference," he adds, referring to plans the government has that will happen quite separately from the green paper. Lord Falconer has since admitted that there will "probably be a need for more planners at district level".
What about design?
Alongside question marks over the regeneration and resource issues, architecture watchdog CABE is nonplussed by the green paper's neglect of design. "We were keen to see this as the central message: if you invest in a scheme, you should invest in quality design – that way you'll get greater certainty and speedier planning approval," says Stephen King, CABE's head of public affairs. Of particular concern to him is the proposal for planning-immune high-tech business zones. In the past, similar schemes have meant the sprouting of poorly conceived industrial estates; one in Salford and another in Birmingham were named and shamed in CABE's Value of Urban Design document.
These omissions, as well as the worries over burdensome development costs and the failure to satisfy lobbyists looking for a community-driven approach, mean that a diverse set of significant voices feels the planning green paper is too thin. The early promise of an ambitious rethink combined with the green paper's lack of meaty detail means there is now a culture of anxiety about what will happen next.
"What they have got is a philosophical superstructure, but nothing practical they can do at the front end," says Roger Humber. "It is a happy-clappy document that has come out of the naive belief that everyone will get behind it and make it work. The government should have put together a ragbag of politically deliverable objectives."
Redrow's Jones agrees: "The fundamental problem is that the government has bitten off more than it can chew. Its proposals will result in controversy and therefore they will not be able to deliver.
I suspect that the approach will encourage anti-development pressure and attempts at amendments."
As the consultation period approaches its 18 March deadline, with valuable time already lost over the Christmas holidays, the question is: will there be time to add enough extra power to deliver a clean, lean planning system?