We don’t need a tilt, we need an earthquake

Balance of power tilts back towards councils, by Richard Garlick
14 March 2014 by Richard Garlick

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The planning minister struck a slightly penitent note when he was explaining his finalised planning practice guidance to the Daily Telegraph last week.

Nick Boles said that additions were being made to planning guidance in some areas where the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was “not working as it should”.

The message to the Telegraph readers was clear: we are listening to your concerns about an NPPF-enabled development free-for-all, and we are taking steps to bring it under control.

It was the latest step ministers have taken to insulate the government from such criticisms. Only a few days earlier, Boles had written to complain about an inspector who had told Reigate & Banstead Borough Council to release green belt land, saying the latter “had invited misinterpretation of government policy”.

He can fairly argue that the finalised guidance will in some ways bolster local planning authorities’ control of development. But it would be an oversimplification to suggest that ministers are reaching for the reverse gear on their planning liberalisation.

Boles can argue that the guidance will bolster local controls on development
Alongside the guidance, Boles confirmed changes that will mean that in most places planning permission is no longer needed to convert shops outside key shopping areas, or agricultural buildings with a floor space of up to 450 square metres, into homes.

These are major incursions into local democratic control of development. What’s more, the guidance itself instructs planning authorities to leave no stone unturned in the struggle to make brownfield sites viable and competitive with greenfield alternatives.

Commentators have suggested that this will force councils to accept lower design standards on brownfield sites than elsewhere, as well as relinquishing any claim to deciding the scale of developer contribution necessary to provide the infrastructure needed to support the scheme. Boles may be bolstering councils on some fronts, but he continues to undermine them on others.

That said, the finalised guidance does offer genuine reinforcement for town halls.

No longer is it the government’s position that only “in exceptional circumstances” will applications be dismissed as premature in terms of prejudicing an emerging plan. Guidance now spells out that the duty to cooperate is not a “duty to accept”, and planning authorities are not obliged to meet their neighbours’ unmet needs. Unmet housing need is unlikely to constitute the “very special circumstances” needed to justify development in the green belt, the guidance says.

Not of all these provisions are major changes to the status quo. In some cases, the finalised guidance is confirming an approach that councils have already been arguing for successfully in front of inspectors, or which the secretary of state for communities and local government has been enforcing in call-ins. But, cumulatively, these and other measures in the guidance look likely to, in some sectors at least, slightly tip the balance of power back towards local authorities.

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning richard.garlick@haymarket.com.

Letter to Local Government First magazine – Localism and planning

Dear sir,
 
I was both interested and concerned to see First, Issue 542, peppered with complaints regarding the relationship between the planning system and Localism, some even calling for the abolition of PINS because, apparently, they don’t get it.
 
The Localism Act has introduced much confusion for the public when it comes to influencing the planning process.  Comments made by members of the public on recent contentious planning applications in my own area, clearly indicate a belief that the Localism Act increases the public’s ability to prevent development from going ahead if enough of them shout loudly enough.
 
This mis-interpretation of the Localism Act’s intentions is, in turn, increasing pressure on councillors to be more outspoken and forceful when speaking at committee.  This pressure is increased further by the Localism Act’s guidance to councillors that advises that they can somehow express an opinion and even campaign on a planning issue, without being accused of pre-determination!  I wonder if any high powered planning barrister would be prepared to defend a decision made by a committee populated by such campaigning members?
 
Whilst I very much sympathise with the councillors who made these comments and understand their wish to represent fully their electorates’ views, I’m afraid it is they, not PINS who don’t get it.  
 
There is a clear need for the government to restate its intentions when it comes to how the Localism Act can be used to influence the planning system – through the process that makes the policy, not the one that determines individual applications. 

 

My best regards, 
 
Councillor Roger Gambba-Jones, 
Planning Committee Chairman, 
South Holland DC, Lincolnshire