Is localism preventing the development of new homes?

Copied from housing network website article by Hannah Fearn
Friday 1 August 2014 10.33 BST

They are both government priorities, but involving communities in planning decisions appears incompatible with housebuilding

Redbridge Council has taken planning decisions out of the hands of elected councillors.

It was the big idea of the coalition government, a cornerstone of localism, a foolproof way of getting things done without scaring off the traditionalists in the Conservative heartland. But after just three years, is neighbourhood planning already dead?

There are few signs of life left in the policy. Nick Boles sounded the first notes of funeral dirge when he admitted that the scheme, which involves local people designing and signing off new housing schemes, was too complex to function. He found that multiple objections from local people actually holds up the development process (who’d have thought it?). Instead he called on councils to who had already given up and come up with a better idea to share their it with other authorities.

The Financial Times reported this week that Kate Barker, who conducted a review of housebuilding for the Labour government in 2004, does not blame government policy for the slow rate of development in recent years. Instead, she says, it’s partly the result of nimbyism.

The turning of the tide against localism in planning goes even further: now even councillors can’t be trusted to make the right decisions. In Redbridge, the council has ruled that all future decisions on planning applications will be made by staff in the planning department because they have the skills and training to ensure they are qualified to make the right decisions; elected members simply do not. Redbridge also claims the move will save £45,000 a year.

Council leader Jas Athwal told his local newspaper that councillors added nothing to the planning process. “These planning officers have a huge amount of education and it seems egotistic that councillors can overrule them,” he said.

Meanwhile, central government is meddling again: it’s offering a slice of a £3m funding pot to councils with the largest number of planning applications for new homes in the pipeline, to speed things up and get those homes built. It’s a reward, but it’s also another opportunity to bypass the planning process that this government put in place.

This is not the first example of government finding new ways to get out of its own promises. Plans to create a new generation of garden cities mean the establishment of development corporations or sub-regional planning bodies which will be tasked with getting these new settlements built; there will be little room for debate once the decision to create a new town has been agreed upon.

In fact, writing for Planning magazine, former Whitehall advisor and planning consultant Ben Kochan says that the best way to win approval for a new garden city is to involve a whole host of organisations which are about as far removed from the neighbourhood planning process as you can get – not just urban development corporations, but also local enterprise partnerships, which give the business community funding and powers to boost economic growth.

It’s somewhat inevitable that in focusing on the end result – seeing more homes built in areas where there is an urgent need – will mean taking difficult decisions that not everyone in the community welcomes. Removing these decisions from the responsibility of local councillors (or simply by circumventing the planning process) will either be seen as a wise attempt to force progress or a cynical attempt to avoid blame for unpopular developments.

Whether you’re in favour of neighbourhood planning or not, it is being quietly removed from the pre-development process in the run-up to the 2015 election. This might be a good thing for housing in terms of numbers, but it’s also a blow to the heart of democratic localism.

Personally, I don’t agree with Redbridge, if they have indeed completely killed of their committee, as officers don’t always give the right weight to the concerns of non-planning experts. Local people are ‘experts’ when it comes to local concerns and local knowledge and you ignore this at your peril.

I do however agree that the system is becoming too vague, the government’s approach far too developer friendly and the overall process too open to abuse by vested interests, to remain as it is.
Telling councillors that they can still make the decisions, even if they’ve campaigned against it. Also suggesting that being pre-disposed to an opinion, is not the same as pre-determination, is complete nonsense and falls apart as defence, as soon as the high court gets involved.

John Howell, villain of the piece!

The letters page of today’s Telegraph carrys a letter from John Howell MP, who is actually claiming responsibility for the Tory Party Open Source Planning document. It’s therefore not surprising that he is criticising the recent Telegraph article by Clive Aslet, that itself criticised the National Planning Policy Framework. Given John Howell’s reference to ‘his’ Open Source Planning document, the NPPF might be better named Open Door Planning Framework.

Incidentally, having had a swift look at John Howell’s CV, apart from a degree that refers to something to do with geography, I can see nothing to confirm that his views on planning are any better informed than my own.

John Howell’s letter makes an extraordinary statement that to me, displays a fundamental lack of understanding of how the planning system actually works or what the repercussions of the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ being enshirined in the NPPF will be. He claims that, far from being an open goal for the developers, it’s only there as ‘tool for putting plans together’. I assume he means neighbourhood plans as opposed to local plans, but even then, his ignorance is breathtaking. You only have to read the extremely enthusiastic comments of the development industry, to get their take on how wide a door they previously had to knock on, will now be thrown open by the NPPF. His claim that it will not be used as weapon by many developers, to force through approval of their individual applications, bears no relationship to what the reality will be.

Mr Howell’s claims that a town in his own constituency supports what the NPPF is trying to achieve, because they have been successful in their ambition to become a Neighbourhood Plan front-runner. What he doesn’t say and I suspect never thought to ask, is what do those promoting that neighbourhood plan want to achieve? Given that Thame is in the well heeled county of Oxfordshire and given how unpopular proposals for major development have been in the south of England to date, I would put some money on this particular neighbourhood plan being the opposite of what Mr Howell’s hopes it wil be.