Lord Falconer's planning green paper was designed to clean up the system by cutting through stubborn layers of built-up bureaucracy – but turns out to be a bit of a wash-out.
The planning green paper was billed as the biggest shake-up in 50 years, a revolutionary product able to wash away the stubborn stains that have long clung to the system. But its wishy-washy proposals, oversights and omissions have been a disappointment – more soft soap than super-solution.

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.

Developers' doubts
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?

What it says on the packet: how the green paper promises to clean up planning

  • District councils to prepare neighbourhood plans called “local development frameworks”. These will replace the muddle of structure plans, local plans and unitary development plans.
  • Local communities will participate in preparing “action plans” to identify development sites.
  • Regional bodies to prepare larger-scale plans, with county councils removed from the process.
  • Time limits on planning consents to be cut from five years to three.
  • Councils and developers to agree time limits for planning decisions on major schemes.
  • Time for lodging appeals reduced from six to three months.
  • Developers to consult local communities before submitting applications.
  • “Twin-track” applications (where two schemes are submitted for the same site at the same time) to be outlawed.
  • High-tech “business zones” immune to planning regulations to be set up in every region.
  • Introduction of a planning checklist to assist the drafting of accurate applications.
  • All national planning policy guidelines to be reviewed.
  • Concurrent consultation papers also propose speeding up the compulsory purchase order system, a fast-track planning route for major infrastructure projects, and the replacement of planning gain with financial tariffs.
  • Tarrifs: the new ingredient that is bringing housebuilders out in a rash

    The government’s proposal to introduce tariffs into the planning gain system has been poorly received by the development industry and criticised as a unsuccessfully disguised planning tax. The new tariffs are set to replace the current system of negotiated deals, where a developer commits to the addition of, say, social housing or community facilities in a scheme to win planning approval. The proposed system would allow councils to pool cash and directly fund their new social housing schemes. Developers are, unsurprisingly, hostile to the idea. “It is unfair and unrealistic to expect industry to foot the bill for this country’s lack of investment in social housing,” says Pierre Williams of the House Builders Federation. Williams also worries that by putting levying powers in the hands of individual councils, developers will be held to ransom over desirable sites. “These proposals would give local authorities carte blanche to demand whatever they want in exchange for planning permission. But those demanding too much will find they are killing the goose that lays the golden egg; if demands are too great, developers will be forced to walk away.” He says this could exacerbate the current housing crisis and destroy any chance of the government’s delivering its stated aim of a “decent home for all”. Another fear is that the tariff system would mean a council craving development will have to grant exemptions to persuade developers to come up with schemes. With low tariffs in poor areas and high tariffs in rich areas, the outcome will be that districts with the greatest need for social infrastructure do not get it. As housing expert Roger Humber puts it, “the rich will get richer with the poor getting nothing”. There are also concerns that urban regeneration will be hit. “The tariffs could have a disproportionate impact on marginal schemes, which is what most regeneration projects are,” says Chris Brown, chief executive of the Igloo Regeneration Fund. “The green paper says there could be an opt-out, but this really has to be automatic. The worry is that individual planning officers will not understand the significance and will slap on tariffs that destroy urban regeneration.”

    So, is it popular with the populace?

    “This is a radical change in the way we look at planning. Instead of being led by plans, we will be led by people,” trumpeted Stephen Byers, head of the DTLR, when he unveiled the planning green paper. If true, it seems odd that lobby groups that pushed for just such an approach now predict that the proposals will prompt a return to confrontational protest. “The green paper has failed to take the temperature of public feeling on planning,” says Neil Sinden, head of policy and research at ROOM, the National Council for Housing and Planning. He says the biggest mistake is the explicit rejection of third-party rights of appeal, the most effective way to give local people and environmentalists a voice. “The government has missed an opportunity to inspire greater public confidence, and it means there will be problems getting the efficient system they are after.” Already the failure to include third-party appeal rights has led to a private members bill, backed by a coalition of powerful pressure groups, including the Council for the Protection of Rural England, ROOM and Friends of the Earth, being presented to parliament. Sinden attacks the parts of the local development frameworks where a public voice is meant to be drawn in, saying proposals are “skimpy” and leave questions unanswered. “It is unclear how action plans will be prepared and also how communities will be involved.” One fear is that public concerns would simply return later on, clogging up the process at the planning application stage. More antagonising still is the proposal for a planning fast track. Announced alongside the green paper, this would see big infrastructure projects go straight through parliament with barely any opportunity for public opposition. It is almost impossible to reconcile this with the government’s rhetoric that the changes are aimed at facilitating public scrutiny, especially as the fast track shuts down debate on controversial schemes such as airports, roads and nuclear facilities. Although this is designed to prevent another Heathrow Terminal 5, industry figures are wary of the consequences, and many agree with Sinden that if you shut people out of decision-making, they will be more prone to take direct action.