It seems that the coalition's dominant themes of localism and the 'Big Society' are being clearly expressed in the realms of housebuilding, planning and environmental protection. Slowly but surely the media are picking up on this and I've noticed an increasing amount of commentary on areas which were previously seen as dry and boring. Only last Friday did the Guardian run an Editorial on the problems associated with the abolition of the regional planning system.
Planning has become one public policy area where the coalition have been quick to tear up Labour policy and hastily enact new ideas linked to the themes of localism and the 'Big Society'. Since the coalition was formed in May the following changes have either directly or indirectly significantly influenced planning, in particular housebuilding:
- the abolition of regional strategies, including the scrapping of housing targets for local authorities;
- the redefining of 'brownfield' land to exclude gardens with the intention of avoiding building homes on back gardens;
- the removal of a minimum density at which homes must be built;
- the encouragement of 'free schools' which can be set up anywhere and therefore require a relaxation of planning controls; and
- greater freedoms to build homes in the rural area if agreed by the community.
Whilst I'm pleased that debate is taking place on matters such as 'where and what should we build', it is frustrating that a raft of coalition policy has come out which is fragmented and ultimately will decrease housebuilding. Last year the number of homes built was the lowest since 1923 and the new coalition policies will do nothing to increase this level.
All incoming Governments start with the ambition of simplifying the planning system and making it easier to gain permission for sensible and sensitive development. Most would agree. I felt that between 1997 and 2010 Labour did over-complicate the planning system with too much being asked of poorly resourced Local Authorities. Despite this I believe they had the correct intention of setting a spatial strategy for a local area from which all other decisions would follow. The recent abolition of the regional tier of planning removes this spatial strategy. We no longer have a guide of how to match homes with jobs and where regionally significant infrastructure should be located. Comparisons with abroad is always dangerous but the Dutch planning system is rightfully lauded for providing a national framework that clearly guides the broad locations for development. Frustratingly it looks like we have taken one step forwards and two back!