A Conservative government would hand planning powers over to local communities, but how will it reconcile this policy with the need for new housing?

It has been a long time coming, but at last the Conservative party has produced its planning policy green paper. The development industry has had plenty of time to digest two earlier Conservative green papers - “Control Shift” and “Strong Foundations” - and to make numerous representations to the party’s front bench team. However, a critical question remained unanswered: can the Conservatives reconcile the two seemingly conflicting ambitions of increasing the number of new homes, while giving local communities greater power and control over local development.

Has the party’s planning policy green paper answered this question? Not entirely. More detail is provided on some of the embryonic policies laid out in the two preceding papers, such as the issuing of local plans, incentivised planning and how to tackle projects of national significance. However, there will remain concern within the development industry that the proposed abolition of a national target structure will result in local authorities adopting a development-sceptic or – worse still - a development-phobic outlook.

At the heart of the paper is an overhaul of the current planning system that will transfer powers away from the machinery of the state and towards local communities, enabling them to play a greater role in how their localities are developed.

As an alternative to the current system, the Conservatives have adopted an open source planning approach. Instead of having one planning structure determined centrally and then applied uniformly across the country, the Conservatives propose a basic framework of national planning priorities and policies within which local communities can produce their own distinctive local policies.

To give force to this new policy, the Conservatives would abolish the power of planning inspectors to re-write local plans and restrict the scope of appealing against local planning decisions.

Other key headlines in the Paper include:

  • Encouraging upper tier authorities to compile infrastructure plans
  • Establishing a presumption in favour of sustainable development
  • Replacing S106 and the community infrastructure levy with a local tariff set by individual local authorities
  • Ensuring that significant local projects are designed through a collaborative process that involves the neighbourhood.
  • In addition, the infrastructure planning commission is to be replaced by a unit for major infrastructure projects within a revised planning inspectorate. The unit will make recommendations to the secretary of state, who will make the final decision. Or for very major linear projects, the process for hybrid or private bills will be revised to allow these projects to be approved more simply and directly by parliament.

This embrace of localism is intended to re-ignite the engagement of communities with the democratic process. With the appeal system weakened and local communities given an enhanced role in shaping local development plans, consultation and engagement with local communities will become more important than at any time since the formation of the current planning system in 1947.

“Collaboration in design” will be required for all development projects above a certain threshold prior to submission. Early consultation, therefore, will become a central and essential component of the planning application.

Of perhaps even greater significant to applicants is the Green Paper’s stipulation that if more than a small minority of residential neighbours in the immediate vicinity of a proposed new development raise any objection, then the presumption in favour of sustainable development does not apply. The Conservatives are proposing that parish councils would be included within the definition of an immediate neighbour, giving them more influence and involvement in determining the success of any application.

This brave new world proposed by the Conservatives may be challenging for the industry, but it also presents significant opportunities. Those developers who engage with local politicians at an early stage, who work to understand the communities they are going into, who seek to uncover the real needs of a local area – they will be best placed to identify and mobilize those in the community who are likely to support a proposed development project.

Much will be written in the coming weeks about the Conservative party’s policies relating to planning. Let us remember that a green paper produced in opposition does not equate to a white paper produced when in government.

However, we must be clear that the current planning system is not working. The number of new homes built – even before the recession – is well down on the year-on-year averages of the Thatcher/Major years. The Conservatives have proposed a series of solutions that may actually provide salvation through the emergence of a new form of empowered local government, which has the willingness and the desire to take difficult strategic decisions in order to remain competitive and attract additional resources. In the climate of pretty significant spending cuts in local government finances, the prospect of the revenue from those additional houses has never looked more tempting. Whatever the final outcome it is clear that under a Conservative government the focus of attention will firmly shift from national to local.