Michael Chambers on what will happen when the planning revolution comes
Permanent revolution has long been the order of the day in the health and education worlds. The government seems to think that this is just what the planning system needs as well. Despite the fundamental review of the planning system, resulting in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 and the Barker Housing Review, it has embarked on yet another root and branch review, led once again by the economist Kate Barker.
Like Barker's first review, this is very much a Treasury-led exercise. It reflects a deeply engrained view at the Treasury that the planning system's inadequacies are a main cause of the UK's poor productivity and declining competitiveness. It also suggests a belief in the existence of a magic bullet that would free up British industry but which earlier reviews have perversely ignored.
Planning can, of course, be a constraint on business but, as surveys show, many businesses recognise that a much freer planning system would be a double-edged sword that could adversely affect the environment in which they operate. In a country as crowded as Britain, dealing with major applications is bound to be difficult, contentious and time-consuming. Even so, as the Royal Town Planning Institute has pointed out, 87% of applications for large commercial development were granted in 2004/05, with 60% of decisions being made within 13 weeks.
There is little evidence of any great desire in business for radical change. As the select committee reported: "Businesses are, on the whole, more concerned with the efficiency of the present system and its perceived cost than with abolishing it or substituting an alternative." Indeed the select committee pointed out that business concerns were almost entirely about day-to-day operational issues such as delays, direct costs to firms and uncertainty.
The RICS has made clear its frustration over the latest review. The emphasis, it says, should be on making the current system work, especially as a number of contentious issues are being tackled in other consultations. The key to making things better is incremental improvement rather than another big bang. In other words, get planning departments fully staffed, get planners working on front-line planning rather than filling in delivery target forms and get planning timetable agreements up and running as soon as possible.
What is clear from all of the submissions to the new Barker review is that, apart from the level of resourcing and the impending planning gain supplement, the key concern is the way that the system handles big infrastructure projects. The government bottled out of radical reform of infrastructure procedures in the 2004 act. It is hard to see how some of the tough choices likely to come out of the energy review will be dealt with unless this nettle is firmly grasped. Without a clear national spatial strategy that prioritises infrastructure proposals of national significance, then proposals for power stations, airports and ports will continue to meander through the system, sometimes for decades. If the Barker review wants to make a difference, this is where it should direct its firepower.