Chief Planner could be Chief Politician

I went to East Lindsey District Council near Louth last Friday, to hear Steve Quartermain, the chief planner at DCLG, field questions from elected members about the revised planning system.

As an aside, having spent 38 years in the RAF it still feels wrong to be able to drive on to an RAF station, even a disused one, without being challenged. For those who don’t know, ELDC is based on the old RAF base at Manby and it was easy to spot the guardroom, SHQ, station workshops, the barrack blocks and of course, the sacred parade square, now desecrated with parked cars. I’m pretty sure the vinyl on the floor of the bogs (toilets to you civvies) was the original stuff from RAF days!

Steve Quartermain was on very good form as always and was able to deflect, defend, duck and generally avoid any criticism of his masters in Whitehall. As an example, given David Cameron’s recent conference criticism of the planning system (again), I asked Steve if the government actually accepted that there are over 400,000 unimplemented planning permissions across England and that if they did accept this figure, then why did his political masters keep blaming the planning system for the lack of growth?

His answer was clearly well practiced and before 2007 it would have actually been an accurate one. According to Steve, 400,000 dwellings is what is needed to satisfy about two years of new housing delivery, so councils need to continue to replenish the stock of planning permissions to meet this need year on year. That would be a good answer if we weren’t recession and if our house building industry wasn’t only managing to build just over 100,000 houses a year.

On this current performance, the house building industry is likely to take at least 3, or even 4 years, to use the 400,000+ outstanding planning permissions. Steve Quartermain of course knows this better than anybody. However, being the politically astute planning professional that he is, he threw back the historical building rate figures from when times were good, bolstered by the long term deficit figure of 3 million houses, that no government has ever managed to put a dent in and swiftly moved on to the next question.

I will however give the Chief Planner his due for being consistent on one message to the assembled members – get on with producing your Local Plan. Many of those at the meeting still didn’t seem to get the other message Steve has been giving out since the coalition government rewrote the planning rules. It’s your plan, if you don’t want something to happen, get the evidence and use that to produce your LOCAL planning policies. Conversely, if you do want something to happen, do the same thing for that goal. Too many of the members at the meeting kept basing their questions on wanting the government to produce national policies that either allowed, or prevented something. One even asked about guidance on materials to be used!

These members still don’t seem to understand that this isn’t the way it works anymore and that, apart from where the central government still wishes to impose its wishes on the nation as a whole, the rest of it is up to them.

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