Redefining Centralism as Localism will mean More Bad Quality Schemes

I was greatly amused by Steve Quartermain‘s (pictured below moonlighting in the Bridge) remarks reported in todays Planning Resource.  Under this government of course his acting skills have certainly improved, he can read out nonsense and still keep an almost straight face.

” if the local planning authority is delivering a service which is making prompt decisions and they have a local plan, why would there be a need for PINS to get involved? I don’t think we see this as a threat to localism where localism is being delivered.

“It’s a recognition that the government is not going to promote a localist agenda and then sit by and let some areas not embrace it.”

In his speech beforehand, Quartermain said: “It’s all very well having localism, but we can’t have localism if communities don’t do things.

Localism used to be explicitly about stopping development, in the the Prime Minister’s terms stopping housing estates being ‘plonked’ on villages.  This was quite explicit before the election.  Now parse the sentence above and replace localism with development and you find that over two years localism has become a synonym for development, and with muscular loyalism a synonym for centralism.  Orwell would have been amused by such an elastic use of English.

But the centralism/localism issue is not my main concern.  That particular dialectic of English planning will go on forever and never be resolved in a consensual way.  Rather it is a purely practical one.

Today in most cases (unless a developer is stupid and looking for a partial award of costs) cases before PINS have reached the end of the road.  Most developers are reluctant to appeal, its expensive and you dont always get what you want.  PINS unlike LPAs cannot be bought with unrelated planning gain.  Inspectors cannot be wined and dined.  The ‘end of the road’ factor means that fewer truly dreadful cases reach the inspectorate than in say the 1980s.  The plan led system means that developers now need a positive flag of local plan conformity and the experts are the local officers.  Supermarkets used to be very aggressive on appeal, but the town centre first policy largely moderated that.  This means that most wrinkles have been ironed out of schemes and the final recommendation is based on a ‘this is as good as we are going to get’ approach.  The scope for inspectors to moderate schemes through conditions (on full consents) is limited.  Inspectors cannot say, come back with a better schemes and ill approve it, its yes or no.

The NPPF has undoubtedly lowered the bar for approval but the system of locally mediated consents remained.  Whilst the dreadful could still be refused on appeal much of the mediocre and mildly ugly would be filtered out through the process of revisions before reaching appeal, when without that filtering Inspectors might feel compelled, by the permissiveness of the NPPF, to approve them with a heavy heart.

This proposal then is poorly thought through.  If the government must take over local decision making they could have considered more use of UDC/LDCs, but actually the 8/16 week performance of these is pretty dreadful, in large part because they have been overwhelmed with large applications, only some of which can practically be approved but have had no plan making powers, exactly the wrong way around.

So what is the government trying to achieve?  Like special measures in schools the hope that it will rise all boats?  Beware of the law of unintended consequences. No longer having to face the politically suicidal decision of approving a major urban extension, and the threat of costs if they refuse it with the NPPF and the +2-% rule many leaders of councils will be thinking , lets slow down our approvals next quarter, then we will get the decision called in and remove the threat of costs.

Indeed the whole costs system breaks down with this proposal.  Rather that costs acting as a disincentive to slow and poor decision making it now acts as an incentive to no decision making.

Furthermore the whole basis of PINS, as the ‘last call’, the last chance saloon, breaks down if it becomes a first port of call, what about pre-application negotiations?  They would have to come to a full stop.  Indeed muscular centralism undermines many good practice principles of decision taking, including that of course of decision taking itself as the SoS has taken the decision, and the incentive to make the decision, away.

I suspect the DCLG will think about it and quietly drop the proposal at report stage.  The idea only had several weeks of Whitehall discussion anyway and ideas that leap straight from the back of an envelope to the statute books with even the greenest of papers and consultation are exactly how to make a dangerous dogs breakfast of government,

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About andrew lainton

International Urban Planner

Posted on October 26, 2012, in National Planning Policy Framework, urban planning. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. The problem with your fascinating blog entry for me is the word “dreadful”. I’ve no idea why I should believe your imaginary in relation to this word, or that of a local authority DC planner tho’ their preferred normative phrasing would be “inappropriate development”.

    Planners can reach opinions, for example, on the word of the concealed Design and Conservation officer who is very, very seldom contactable directly. Their opinion has an almost oracular force for DC planners who presumably love the idea of an in-house final arbiter.

    I am struck by the idiocies heaped on planning by Conservation Areas. CAs are degenerate ideas that lack any intellectual rigour. Out of the cult of conservation emerges so much of the intermittent degenerate preciousness of planning.

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