10 Things the Government is Doing (or Not Doing) which are Really ‘Throttling Recovery’ #NPPF

Open Letter to Eric Pickles from The Campaign Against Sprawl

Dear Secretary of State,

10 Real Planning Priorities for Improving Growth

Following yesterdays cabinet meeting we understand you are some pressure to improve your departments performance on the Growth Agenda.  Im sure Sir Bob Kerslake has informed you you are not the minister for  flags, bins or the Church of England but for Planning, Communities and Housing.  Yet the only major statement you have made on planning matters in the last few months has been on bowling!   Rather than the ruthless focus on ways the planning system can be improved your department has pursued the equivalent of a royal hunt of the sun pursuing actions which, despite warnings of your own civil servants, have been successfully challenged in the courts and/or will have actually and actively harmed growth.  To be helpful we have suggested 10 changes which the department can make to its business plan which would have an immediate positive impact on jobs and growth.

1.  Retain Growth Areas

If growth needs planning permission its needs a place to grow.  There are plenty of places which would welcome growth but where growth prospects are poor.  The problem is finding areas in the South East, South West West and East of England where this growth will be acceptable.  Yet all of such growth areas defined by the previous government have been abolished. With the exception of Cambridge none of the former growth areas are continuing with their high employment and housing targets and are now pursuing ‘local’ targets which imply in many cases much lower in migration of those seeking work from elsewhere in the UK which much less growth prospects and in some cases an actual decline in the working population! Is the Prime Minister aware that the towns in the most prosperous parts of the UK with the least planning constraints and the highest prospects for growth have been encouraged by government actions to pursue an agenda the opposite of the government’s growth agenda?  Revocation of regional strategies does not imply abolition of growth areas.  They can and should be retained as national policy to give a guide to investors on where growth is welcomed and will be supported.

2. Allow Local Planning Authorities to set their own Fees

Without this change, a decision on which is urgently needed to enable fees to be set from the 1st of April 2012, local authorities will not be able to plan to meet demands and provide a good service to applicants. Indeed many may be forced to lay off staff and lead to declining planning performance.  The private sector in high growth areas such as Westminster have indicated their willingness to pay.

3.  Shift spending priorities from Weekly Bin Collections to Building Affordable Homes

This shows a very poor prioritization by the Dept.  Rather than spending hundreds of million of pounds trying to undo the work of another Dept why not try to claw back some of the two thirds cut in affordable housebuilding, which will have a major multiplier effect on the wider economy.

4. Stop Causing Confusion on Investment in Renewable Energy

The Prime Minister has been sending very mixed messages on this issue.  Publicly setting out a hard line but privately reassuring backbenchers that policy will be changed to make it easier to refuse schemes.  We now have the worst of all possible worlds.  Lack of clarity on the local discretion for decision and lack of confidence of the wind industry over whether national policy will back well conceived cases on appeal sufficient to undertake billions of investment. The obvious solution to such national/local conflicts is to allow local discretion providing a local energy target can be met.  The Government should drop its obsessing against planning targets when they can usefully facilitate growth and sustainable development.

5. Simplify Making Planning Applications

It is very surprising that if planning is seen as a ‘drag anchor’ that the government has not simplified and speeded up planning processes, focussing instead on planning policy issues which have little to do with application processing times which forms the sole economic case, in the impact assessment on the NPPF, for the governments reform agenda.  This is a spectacular misdirection of effort.  The government should be focussing like a laser beam on how to simplify and speed up application processes.  We have made a radical proposal in this regard in our NPPF submission for a ‘Single Statement’ which would remove the need for documents on major planning applications which can fill a skip whilst meeting all legal requirements.  Whilst on simple applications information which is not germane to the application type is often requested, such as flood risk assessments for first floor extensions.  Local validation lists are a frequent issue as they try to cover every eventuality rather than breaking applications down into complexity types (as the Dobry review recommended 40 years ago and now implemented in Scotland in their 2008 Planning Act – 40 years to implement a policy of a conservative government must be some record) and structuring forms and processes around the needs of the .  There are lots of simple things that can be done, especially with the ONEAPP system.  Ministers need to roll up their sleeves and get involved in the nitty gritty of process issues, as ministers involved with welfare reform have.  Little progress will be achieved through standing on high and accusing planners of being enemies of enterprise if the problem is a poor process compulsory by ministerial dictat.

6.  Declare Special Economic Zones

Those countries seeking international inward investment will typically set up special economic zones where a investor friendly regulatory regime applies and where goods can be imported, entrepot, and re-exported tax free.  There is now considerable research on what makes a successful SEZ.  We have previously published an area around Filton and North Bristol which has ideal characteristics including for example the densist motorway network in the UK.  Other candidates would include at Felixstowe, Hull and Tyneside.

7.  Provide Certainly on Housing Land Availability and Accompanying Infrastructure

What housebuilders need is certainty about where they can build yet since the Election research by Roger Tym has shown that planned housing allocations for approaching 300,000 houses have been withdrawn.  Ministers have never convincingly responded to this, as the DCLG select committee have noted.    The planned revocation of regional strategies will do nothing to increase housebuilding but rather has created an uncertain investment climate.  The new duty to cooperate will provide ineffective unless their is strong sanction against those authorities who refuse to play ball on the need for housing and infrastructure that meets a larger than local need.  What is desperately needed is government support for the setting up of statutory city region/sub-region plans – as Wales and Scotland are introducing for similar reasons where local authorities come together and choose which areas to focus develop and which areas to protect.  If the government is concerned about imposition or a democratic deficit why not make their chairs elected – as the new police commissioners.

8.  Stop Undermining Zoning for and Investing in Employment Land

If there is demand for employment land then one easy way for planning to encourage growth is to zone land for employment purposes.  Yet the last year has seen the government propose two measures which will have an entirely counterproductive effect.  Firstly the proposed changes to the Use Classes Order has and would encourage land owners to scale back investment for employment purposes in industrial areas, whilst the proposal to weaken zoning for employment in the draft NPPF has made local authorities  hesitant to zone extra land for employment purposes at all in case it then get used for housing, for which there would be a lack of local employment.

9.  Set up a Communities Work Programme Run by Neighbourhoods

Neighbourhoods have shown they have many ideas for improving their areas, run down high streets etc. but what they lack is a means of delivery.  Neighbourhood Plans could be a damp squib without it.  What is needed is a programme run by neighbourhoods whereby young people and older workers can receive an enhanced benefit for local schemes designed and run by local people themselves.  Priorities would be schemes which aid the competitiveness of local small business and which aid the retention of income in local economies.  It could include schemes to help insulate older persons homes, to create open spaces, to renovate run down buildings as workshops and to let people help out at local farms.

10 .  Ensure that Statutory Consultees are judged by their Performance as Solution Providers

The principal of finding solutions so that growth providing development can be approved rather than refused must also apply to statutory consultees such as the Highways Agency.  It should also apply to privatised utilities through their regulators such as Water firms which are notorious for holding back investment which will enable growth until after planning permission is granted, yet it might be unlawful to grant permission for schemes until that investment is secured.  The Rye Meads Water Work in Herts is a good example holding up major growth in four New Towns.

These are all straightforward actions which would have an immediate impact on growth.  Yet the first two years of the government has been spend on pursuing the dead end of the ant-growth agenda set by Caroline Sperlman as Shadow Minister before the election.  New Minister have yet to set their mark on the new growth agenda.  So far in this area the dept is a failing one.

Ministers need to integrate growth with sustainable development in a sensible way they have not done hitherto.  Rather than pursuing growth at all costs and at the cost of unnecessary countryside loss they need to pursue Smart Growth, growth of compact walk-able communities – the most efficient in terms of energy and infrastructure costs and spurring growth and innovation.  Take a leaf from President Sarkosys nook as he has recently enacted a series of reforms designed to reverse the tendency towards unenconomic urban sprawl in France precisely because of the economic harm it causes.

We consider these proposed actions would be widely welcomed by housebuilders, property and business groups, as well as NGOs and environmental charities.  We intend top help form a wide caucus on these reforms and directly lobby Downing Street, asking the question, when will Eric pull his finger out and start helping England grow.

Andrew Lainton

Campaign Against Sprawl

CC  Sir Bob Kerslake

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