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'.

1 comment:

  1. The answer is default approvals: notify refusal or you can proceed. We already have 'prior approval' legislation. Bingo.