Saturday, 26 March 2011

No short term answers in planning reform

It was no surprise that planning played a noticeable part in last week's Budget. In the weeks leading up to George Osbourne's announcement, a number of ministers, including the PM himself, had identified the planning system as a drag on growth that was ripe for reform. The language used by Osborne, Pickles, Cable et al typifies the Coalition's approach to the public services, where town hall bureaucracy is supposedly stifling economic growth.

The Budget therefore included a number of measures to reform the planning system and align it with the new growth agenda. This included:

- a presumption in favour of 'sustainable development'
- a new National Planning Policy Framework
- changes to permitted development rights, including the ability to change offices to r
esidential use without planning permission.
- prioritising growth and jobs in local planning policies
- land auctions
- involving businesses in the shaping of Neighbourhood Plans
- 21 Enterprise Zones where planning restrictions would be removed

Despite the rhetoric, none of this is radically new and has appeared in a previous Green Paper on Planning written by the Conservatives when in Opposition. Much has since been written in reaction to the announcements and I direct you to excellent articles by Jamie Carpenter (here) and the Centre for Cities (here).

Overall, I am positive about any initiative to align planning with economic aspirations and, if undertaken correctly, the Enterprise Zones can help new initiatives be trialed (as I have discussed previously - see here). The Royal Docks in London will be a good test case. Over the last 15-20 years the area has seen significant development, with commercial schemes, the Excel Centre and a number of Ballymore-led residential towers. The onus is therefore less on physical improvements and more on business incentives and attracting jobs. Whether this just shifts existing jobs from elsewhere will be interesting to see.

My main gripe with the Budget is the unrealistic timetable for these reforms. The presumption in favour of 'sustainable development' was originally suggested in the Conservative Green Paper but failed to make it into the Localism Bill. Why has this policy been discarded but now held up to be the saving grace for economic growth? If it is to be re-inserted into the Localism Bill, this will take time and further debate in the House of Commons. Furthermore, the policy in favour of sustainable development must be aligned with the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Nobody has yet seen the NPPF, so it is unrealistic to see this being adopted before the end of 2011. So, for both the Localism Bill to be adopted and the NPPF to be in force, it will be a further 18 months at least. In the meantime the Government will be under pressure to increase growth above 2%, reduce unemployment and build more homes. It is hard to see if any of the Budget announcements can make any difference in the short term. Whilst I commend the proposed reforms, why weren't they made Government policy 18 months ago?

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Enterprise Zones - how can planning help?

There is an assumption behind public sector budget cuts that the private sector will pick up the slack. Yet for this to occur businesses of all sizes require assistance from Government. Unfortunately the so-called 'Growth Agenda' has yet to materialise from the Coalition Government. The outgoing head of the Confederation of Business Industry, Sir Richard Lambert, has been particularly scathing of the lack of progress regarding job creation and business support (see here). Lambert has described a series of vague policy ideas instead of a coherent vision of how the private sector can support Britain's attempts at economic recovery. With a new Budget soon to be announced, the pressure is on the Chancellor to focus on growth and job creation (see here).

Despite the long history of borrowing policy ideas from across the Atlantic, it has still come as a surprise that the Government's growth agenda is being driven by Enterprise Zones. Made famous under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, EZs were seen as a way of overcoming Local Authority inertia and parachuting in ready-made schemes from Central Government. Whilst London Docklands is perhaps the most famous EZ, the policy was mostly tested in the North where industrial decline was greatest.

Think-tank Centre for Cities has just published this report that looks into how EZs can play a role in stimulating growth. The key point they pick up on is that EZs no longer need to focus on physical regeneration. Whereas in the 1980s, UK cities required massive investment in housing, infrastructure and public services, this is less pressing now due to the large levels of investment (often through complicated Private Finance Initiative deals) by New Labour. As Centre for Cities rightfully highlight, the current private sector requirement is for business support and the re-skilling of the workforce (so-called softer factors).

So what can planning do? Centre for Cities suggest 'rapid planning zones' to speed-up planning permissions with 6 week decision deadlines (currently 8 weeks) and schemes to only be refused if there are critical concerns. Good ideas in theory but hard to see how they can work. Local Authority planning departments are currently having budgets cut meaning less money for staff and the all-important training. With planning officers currently struggling to meet 8 week deadlines I fail to see how shorter deadlines can be met without impacting other proposals or hiring more qualified staff.

The second proposal may have more scope for success. Up until now the policy of deemed consent has proved unworkable, as shown when the Conservative Party dropped the proposal for automatic consent for 'sustainable development' from the Localism Bill (here). Despite the legal hurdles I am tempted by the radical idea of hyper-relaxed planning consents in identified EZs. Key criteria must be met, but following this it is up to the applicant to have a free reign. This could also help engage a wider audience with planning and help people understand what planning should and should not do in EZs and non-EZ areas. It may also allow David Cameron to recognise that planners can be 'enablers of enterprise' and not 'enemies of enterprise'.