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Letter: Radical Planning Changes Are a Pipe Dream But Effective Changes Could Be Made

Published on: 13 May, 2022
Updated on: 13 May, 2022

Creeping suburbanisation

From: David Roberts

In response to: A Good Walk Spoiled – The Gulf Between Proficient Planning and What We Have

I read Martin Giles’ “ten-point plan to improve planning control in England” on the very day that the government announced new and much scaled-back plans for planning reforms that, by Michael Gove’s own admission, leaves its aspiration to build 300,000 new homes a year in tatters.

Not surprisingly, none of the Dragon editor’s ten points appears in this new policy, which is now all we’ll get out of Westminster until there’s a change of government.

Gove’s main task was to defuse a serious backlash from “blue wall” backbenchers and Tory councils that finished off his predecessor, Robert Jenrick.

Sensibly, Gove has junked the top-down zoning of the whole country into areas for “protection”, “renewal” and “growth”, along with centrally dictated local housing quotas. He’s also promised “street votes” on local planning proposals.

This sounds radical but will add yet another layer to a planning system that has been steadily seizing up with accretions going back to 1945. This is the main reason planning is now monopolised by a closed priesthood of council officers, developers, lawyers and consultants who conspire to bamboozle the public at every turn.

It’s not hard to see how they, and the councillors they treat as pawns, will swat away Mr Giles’ ten points:

1. Realistic local housing targets? Sorry, but the standard methodology enshrines fantasy calculations based on bad data. (Well, to be accurate, the methodology isn’t mandatory, but no local politician has the brains, courage or energy to work out a better one.)

2. Disallow political party funding from businesses and other organisations? Sorry, but all our parties would go bust, especially if you exclude NGO and trade union funds as well.

3. Social housing targets related to local demand? Who’s going to pay for this wild socialist idea?

4. Reduce local plan periods to five years? But local government is now so sclerotic that the five years would be up before anything got done?

5. Punitive taxes against land banking? This would be an assault on private enterprise! I can’t see Treasury giving approval for that!

6. Ban foreign property investment? What – and see the collapse of our multi-billion pound service sector of dodgy lawyers, accountants and estate agents (not to mention the Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies)? Dubious though it is, free capital movement is one of the few comparative advantages that keeps the UK economy afloat.

7. Strengthen councils against legal and administrative challenge? And when did the planning priesthood and Whitehall ever willingly give power away?

8. Building height limits? But why just heights? This would be seen as the thin end of the wedge.

9. Tough environmental controls on building design? And put up costs for builders, especially small ones already facing huge price hikes?

10. Reinstate green belt designation to unneeded sites? Already explicitly allowed under the National Planning Policy Framework as part of the Local Plan process, but of course denied by relevant councillors, who won’t admit sites aren’t needed anyway.

We can still dream of radical policy reform, but there is now no prospect of this until the next general election at the earliest. In the meantime, my own suggestions would be more modest, starting with some administrative re-prioritisation by our new joint Guildford/Waverley public services.

Social media is awash with enraged Guildford residents who can’t build little home extensions because of delays, sometimes amounting to years, in the planning application process. This betrays the priority being given to the big national housebuilders, who seem to have no trouble blighting our villages with soulless new housing estates.

You’d think that big, complex applications would take a long time to validate and process. But GBC spares no expense to hire temporary staff to rush them through, neglecting a backlog of small, uncontentious applications and other council business.

Officers could, if instructed to do so, be more critical in validating complex applications. They could process applications in the order of validation, with no queue-jumping by the big boys. They could save millions by not hiring temporary staff.

This would be reasonable and proportionate on value-for-money and efficiency grounds, given the unprecedented squeeze on council income and the need to work within limited resources, to maximise the number of applications processed, to respond to public concern at the backlog and to prioritise individual local council taxpayers and voters over outside commercial interests.

These considerations are defensible and well outweigh any potential challenge on “non-determination” grounds, with which the development lobby likes to spook councillors into submission.

And it can all be done administratively without any policy change. All it takes is the same level of political cunning from our executive councillors as that exercised by the Tories in getting their hated Local Plan approved in the first place – along with stricter democratic control over how officers, who often seem to be working against rather than for the public, allocate their time.

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