Q: How are you finding the planning role so far?
A: “I’ve always had a huge interest in planning for lots of years. In my constituency [the City of Durham] it’s a huge issue for me. So I’m someone who came to the brief knowing something about planning and having very particular views on it. I have a much more positive view about planning to shape places than we are getting from the government, who tend to see it as a stop on development. That’s not my view. I would like us to have a different discussion about planning, about what it can deliver and what it can’t.”
Q: What do you think of the government’s recently-announced reforms to the planning system?
A: “If they wanted to get growth in housing and in construction, this is not the best way to go about it. The problem is not lack of planning permissions because probably every local authority in the country has got sites with permission that are not being developed. It’s a lack of confidence in the economy, sometimes a lack of investment. What they need to be doing is looking at stimulating the housing market. We think it’s simply ridiculous to choose the route that they have.
“We also have lots of questions about what they are proposing. We are concerned about what they are proposing on section 106 agreements. While we can see there might be a need to renegotiate 106 agreements, that was happening anyway.
“It’s the lack of detail. They haven’t told us how they are going to decide if a planning department is failing. Will they be giving the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) more resources to deal with that?
“We saw all of those announcements as panic measures to encourage economic growth because they haven’t got a plan B.”
Q: Would Labour reverse any of these proposals? If so, which ones?
A: “At the moment we are not saying that we would bring legislative changes partly because of this issue of needing to have some stability. And we think with some tweaks, we can probably work with what’s there.
“With the NPPF, we are looking very closely at neighbourhood planning, and whether it could work much better. We are looking at whether we can give communities real incentives to support the development of their communities, such as giving them some commissioning powers as well and involve them in the procurement process. We are looking at whether neighbourhood planning can deliver more than a land use plan. And we want to look at how to simplify the local plan process, and maybe make it more flexible.
“And then the next thing we want to look at is how we get beyond local authority-level planning but without it being seen as a top-down approach. Is there is a mechanism to bring local authorities together, maybe around travel-to-work areas?”
Q: Will Labour restore a system of regional strategic planning, with regional house-building targets? Or will it stick to the current localist system?
A: “I think at the moment we would not go back to that. What we are looking at is other more bottom-up mechanisms of bringing authorities together to enable that, beyond the local authority level.
“We are also looking at whether that could fit into a national framework. I’m going to look at Scotland and what’s happening in Wales. We are looking at whether they [local authorities] can be brought together around a level of planning that would make sense, in sub-regional hubs. We are looking at a bidding-in process for local authorities.
“It’s hard for us to use ‘regional’, because it’s gone out of the lexicon. So that’s why we are talking about just bringing local authorities together at a level of strategic planning for travel-to-work areas.
“We do need something at a national level that says: ‘These are our priorities for infrastructure. This is what we think should happen to happen to support development.’
“But that’s very tentative, very early thinking.”
Q: Hillary Benn had some quite strong criticisms of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) when it was published in March. What are Labour’s thoughts on it now? Will you revise it if you come to power?
A: “The plan itself doesn’t go as far on developing brownfield sites as we would like. But at this point in time we are not thinking about massively re-writing it. We think it needs to be tweaked. We need to think about guidance to go alongside the NPPF.
“Again, there may be tweaking of the Localism Act where we think it’s not strong enough to support localism or doing the opposite of what it’s intended to do, the community right to bid being one of them. But at this point in time, we are not thinking: ‘Let’s tear it all up’, because that would just bring such instability into the system. Lets see what we can work with.”
Q: What do you think about the way the government talks about the planning sector?
A: “We talk about planning very differently. When the government talks about planning, they see it as a break on growth. We see planning much more pro-actively. We see it as a positive way of shaping communities in the future. I never hear that from government ministers and I think that’s dreadful. They are not using the planning profession and their skills the way they should be used.”