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A familiar story? Planning and obstacles to growth

Professor Mark Tewdwr-Jones (UCL Bartlett School of Planning)

Mark Tewdwr-Jones

The reference to the planning system as 'a chronic obstacle to economic growth' should seem remarkably familiar to Parliamentarians and students of political science alike. In fact, Mr Osborne’s contention that no government has done anything to tackle the obstacle of the planning system conveniently sweeps aside vast swathes of government legislation and policy statements going back over 30 years.

A little reading of political and planning history will reveal a great deal of all political parties’ efforts to ‘do something’ about the planning system over the last 30 years. The Chancellor is therefore making the wrong statement; he needs to ask why, despite these legislative and policy initiatives from both Conservative and Labour governments, is the planning system still viewed as an obstacle to development?

Planning as an 'obstacle'

The Barker reports produced a wealth of facts and opinions from the business community about the pros and cons of planning.  There was little evidence for planning being portrayed as an ‘obstacle’, despite politicians and certain sections of the media continuing to peddle the fact. So why do we have the continued vilification? Perhaps it relates to the fact that in 2009 only 87% of planning applications nationally were given planning permission? Or that some of the ‘failed’ 13% just happen to be in the Green Belt, National Parks and in other important landscape areas designated, appropriately enough, by central government?

Central government ministers often seem to forget to their cost that the local planning system that they dislike and label so much as an economic barrier nationally is, in point of fact, not only about giving out planning permission for new economic development. It also serves as the governmental and management process locally and on the ground to deal with environmental and countryside protection, and is a bulwark in favour of local democracy and expressing views of support or objection.

Planning supports economic growth, environmental protection, and local public participation. A government deliberately shifting that delicate balance in favour of economic growth in the national interest will sooner or later find opposition on the ground project by project from representatives acting in the local interest. The latter 1980s represents a period when ministers learned the hard way how not to go about skewing local planning against localized interests.

The Budget

And so we come full circle to 2011. The Budget Statement set out a new agenda for local planning:

1. All bodies involved in planning to prioritise economic growth and job creation;

2. A new presumption in favour of sustainable development – the default answer for local authorities to new development proposals is always ‘yes’; in reality this is not new but makes it more explicit;

3. The retention of controls over the green belt, but the removal of nationally imposed targets on the use of previously developed land; the implication here is that if you don’t build on brownfield sites in town and city centres, you build on greenfield sites on the edge of towns – not all edge of town land is designated in planning law as green belt;

4. Certain use classes changes, with time limits on applications (12 month processing maximum) and pilot auctions of planning permission on land;

5. The establishment of 21 Enterprise Zones, featuring 100% discount on rates, reduced planning restrictions, new superfast broadband, and the potential to use capital allowances in zones. Local Enterprise Partnerships, rather than individual local neighbourhoods or authorities, to come forward and make proposals;

6. Businesses to be allowed to bring forward neighbourhood plans and neighbourhood development orders, not only communities themselves.

Most of these policies have been tried and tested before by previous governments with outcomes very different from those imagined by their sponsors. What makes these policies vastly more interesting is how and where they support localism, the ‘big society’ and the Localism Bill itself, currently progressing through both Houses.

Virtually non of the planning element of the Budget Statement had featured in the Conservatives’ Open Source Planning Green Paper of March 2010. And very little of it was intended for inclusion originally in the Localism Bill. So why the sudden conversion?

Planning and localism

Well perhaps it could be that, as most commentators had been speculating, the Localism Bill and the switch to neighbourhood planning and decision making at a very localized level would cause the opposite to the intention. Communities would not perhaps decide whether they wanted development and what sort of community facilities proactively. Rather, in the Home Counties especially, they would utilize the new powers to say no to any form of development or change. It is little wonder that the Localism Bill has been labelled a ‘NIMBY-ist charter’.

The South East of England, where a great deal of opposition to new development occurs locally, not only possesses 25% of the UK population, but it is also the second largest economic contributor to the UK after London. According to the Government’s Statistic Office in 2010, one third of the UK’s economic output is generated by Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire alone.

So the Government has a quandary. The government needs London and the South East as the economic heart of the nation and where market demand for development sites remain high. Many sections of the public, on the other hand, are resistant to new planning projects, housing growth, economic development, and infrastructure renewal where they impact on local communities in the Home Counties and where a considerable number of Conservative members have their constituencies.

Under the Localism Bill, if neighbourhoods in the South East started to say no to pro-growth projects (to a greater extent than local planners have been accused of up until now), then this will affect the economy nationally. The economic growth stance, Enterprise Zones initiatives, and business-leaning initiatives announced by the Chancellor are therefore partly about re-generating all cities and regions of the UK post-recession. But they are also a knee-jerk reaction to the possible on-the-ground utilisation of the Localism Bill and very much reflect national concerns. As I suggested at the time of the release of the Localism Bill, history shows the localism in planning is always accompanied by a form of centralism at some point later.

The result in some parts of England will be interesting. Expect local planning projects to become bogged down in policy argumentations and contentions between national, local and neighborhood interests. That is not the fault of the planning system. That is healthy democracy. But the delivery of projects will be slowed down. And when that happens, expect ministers to be eager to point the finger of blame at ‘the chronic obstacle to economic growth… the planning system’.

Professor Mark Tewdwr-Jones is Professor of Spatial Planning and Governance at the UCL Bartlett School of Planning.  He can be contacted here.  

Page last modified on 25 mar 11 08:35