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?

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