Cuts to town hall planning departments will weaken voters’ influence over the future of their area and place it increasingly in the hands of property developers and their lawyers, leading architects have warned.
Richard Rogers, who advised Tony Blair, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson on architecture and planning, said he was “totally bemused” by the extent of cuts to spending on planning and warned that it would undermine Downing Street’s localism policy, which is intended to devolve decision-making powers to community groups.
Councils are slashing as much as 58% from their planning budgets between 2012 and 2014, according to Guardian research, with some of the biggest city councils cutting the most. Manchester is reducing its spending by 54%, Portsmouth by 49% and Liverpool by 35%.
“The success of localism depends on knowing what you are doing, so if they don’t put money into expertise in local areas, who will make the decisions?” said Rogers. “The public can’t be expected to run planning. You need well-informed, well-trained planners taking these decisions.”
The government has ordered councils to produce clear local plans detailing the number of homes they will build over the next five years, a process which absorbs considerable planning resources. If they fail to do so, planning decisions will be made centrally using far broader criteria than employed locally. Some 30% of councils have yet to draw up a plan, according to the government, although planning professionals estimate the number is significantly higher.
“Having fewer staff will impact on local plan-making, which enables local communities to manage growth in the way they want,” said a spokesman for the Royal Town Planning Institute. “Not having a local plan because of a lack of planners means applications will be decided on the basis of broad national planning policies and could leave communities vulnerable to the kind of development they do not want.”
George Ferguson, an architect who was elected mayor of Bristol last year, said the loss was likely to be in the “positive planning area” – in other words, thinking through strategic plans for development in areas of the city rather than simply reacting to incoming applications. He also said town hall design departments and conservation departments, which arguably improve the quality of development, were likely to suffer.
He said some of the cuts could be made through efficiencies but added: “The danger is you let the development industry command the agenda, while a good council should be on top of the agenda in partnership with the developers.”