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,

South Oxfordshire Core Strategy Found Sound – Inspector’s Report

The log of my blog and what people are searching for usually tells me if ive missed something like yesterday – South Oxfordshire’s core strategy being found sound.

Like Woking they had an easy time of it as the Strategic Green Belt Review and associated adjustments to targets was deleted by judicial review of the SEP, leaving a great floating hole of underprovision in Oxfordshire that will need to be cooperatively tackled in the next plan reviews.

On whether a higher figure than the ‘repaired’ SEP housing target should be planned for

No clear evidence to justify any particular level of higher provision emerged from the examination, nor is there any comprehensive assessment of any such figure against environmental constraints. However, the county authorities are said to be moving towards commissioning an updated SHMA for Oxfordshire in late 2012 and the output from that work will bring greater clarity about whether or not early reviews of Local Plans in the county need to be commenced.

Meanwhile, the strong demographic factors underlying the housing provision
sought by the SEP have not been shown to be significantly weakened, albeit
their effective expression is likely to have been suppressed by the economic
situation and the difficulty of access to mortgage funds. Pending the revised
SHMA it would not be appropriate to defer adopting plans capable of meeting
the District (non-SOSDA) need recognised in the SEP even if delivery takes
place over a longer timescale than suggested in the CS, especially as the role
of house-building in economic recovery has been recognised in recent budget
statements. Overall, therefore, I conclude that the overall housing provision
of the CS is soundly based.

The Inspectors findings on the urban rural split is interesting, providing an inverted dispersed pattern is proposed (as at Stratford) I have always felt that within a band of reasonableness it is a matter of professional and political judgement.

The SA for the CS assessed that an 80:20 urban/rural split would be more sustainable in terms of improving accessibility to services and facilities and reducing harm to the environment and minimising pollution, while a 60:40 split would result in more rural housing and more positive effects in relation to maintaining the viability of village services. The decision to opt for the latter
rather than the former (or any other split) appears to be based more on intuitive judgement than a strict sifting of objective evidence, but this is not necessarily a reason to find the choice unsound.


BPF Urges Osborne to Halt Planning Changes – FT


George Osborne has been urged not to shake up the planning system by an alliance of councils and property companies who have warned the chancellor that further uncertainty will lead to “an adverse impact on development”.

The coalition’s revision of the national planning policy framework prompted a battle between politicians and conservation groups such as the National Trust that was only laid to rest in the spring when the government watered down its original proposals.

Yet in recent weeks, Mr Osborne and the Treasury have been pushing ministers to find new ways to relax the planning system to the benefit of housebuilders and companies wanting to expand their premises.

That sense of urgency is reinforced by this week’s gross domestic product figures which show that the construction industry contracted by 2.5 per cent in the third quarter, even as the rest of the economy pulled out of recession. The sector’s production is down 10 per cent on a year ago, the data suggest.

The British Property Federation and the Local Government Association question in Friday’s report whether changes to planning would have the economic impact that the chancellor has suggested.

Instead they plead with the government to limit any further changes to planning to minor adjustments to streamline the system.

“We believe that the priority now must be to let the reformed planning system bed in rather than have further rounds of major reform,” the two groups say in their joint report.

Mr Osborne has been pressing Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, to speed up the planning system, for example by encouraging councils to make use of existing “flexibility” over Green Belt rules. The coalition has also granted a temporary relaxation of the rules so that people can extend their homes without planning permission.

In last month’s reshuffle a new planning minister was appointed; Nick Boles, a reforming MP who only months ago described countryside campaigners as “scaremongering latter-day Luddites”. That appointment has been greeted with trepidation by some conservation groups who fear another shake-up of the planning system.

Those concerns are shared by some within the property industry and local government, who do not want to see more uncertainty around the rules governing development.

Sir Merrick Cockell, chairman of the LGA, said business agreed that the planning system “is not the key barrier to growth and further reforms of the planning system are not the answer”.

The report by the LGA and BPF says the government has focused heavily on the belief that planning is a blockage to development and has spent much of the past two years implementing a package of reforms intended to strike a better balance.

It says many of the changes have been welcomed, including the simplification of the “mountain of planning law and regulation” that had built up over decades.

“While there is always scope for further fine tuning to the system, it is not our view that further rounds of planning reform would lead to a major increase in development activity,” it says.

In the areas that we have looked at in which development is stalled, the key obstacle has not been planning. Indeed, the relevant local authorities have been keen to expedite new development. The overwhelming problem has been a lack of financial viability.”

Instead the two groups recommend an expansion of “City Deals”, introducing stamp duty land tax relief for public sector projects and the use of government guarantees on smaller capital projects.