Attempts to undertake major reforms of the planning system have been ongoing over the last three goverment terms. Though approached from different directions they have all been based on two premises.
1) Plans should be in place as quickly as possible and meet need.
2) If you don’t you will lose on appeal.
Despite upticks in the years following house price crashes we still build less than half of the 300,000 houses a year we need (260,000 a year HH growth + backlog realistically spread over 10 years). Indeed the ONS charting the long term change shows that we have shifted from being a nation that built to need comparable with our European neighbors we no longer do so.
The massive changes brought on by the NPPF in the last parliament simply replaced dropped regional plan driven schemes with developer driven schemes, and in almost every case the strategic schemes dropped from plans are having to be put back in again following the realities of planning for objectively assessed needs. Regional plans were always done by groupings of local authorities working together. The ‘top down’ element was Gordon Brown’s insistence that they add extra housing to meet new household forecasts at a late stage. This extra housing always had to come but the manner of intervention was clumsy and counterproductive. The backlash led to regional plans abolition built gradually local authorities have had to put back in place city regional and sub regional arrangements to meet the duty to cooperate. Minister claim the new system is locally driven, they are the only people who believe that, local council leaders universally consider that the system is centrally driven through national planning policy as enforced by inspectors. Hence we ended up with a system as top down as before whose only difference is that it takes so much longer to agree local plans because of the uncertainties of agreeing OAN (objectively assessed need) and distributing overspill, especially from constrained and Green Belt areas. Arrangements under the Duty to Cooperate are informal and non statutory. The rush to combined authorities complicates this but in almost every case the overspill will be beyond the combined authority boundaries. It is likely that within two years or so we will have a series of drafty plans commissioned by the Mayor of London etc. to deal with overspill issues but the arguments will just get bigger and without clear and enforceable means of agreeing to and implementing the plans.
Despite attempts to make the planning system simpler with ministers dreams of simple rules that can be used by everyone not just experts the system has become ever more complicated and ever more dominated by specialist planning consultants and lawyers producing ever fatter reports on cases that take ever longer to determine. The most obvious simplifications – such as a single consolidated planning act and a single consolidated secondary legislation stature have been dodged, whilst the vagueness of the NPPF system and how and who makes tough decisions (such as what the local housing target should be) means that the system is ever more difficult to navigate as every housing case becomes a battle of report listing endless caselaw and precedents on exactly how to calculate the 5 year supply and what should and should not be included in it.
There is little appetite for major reform of the NPPF recognising the enormous negative consequences of tinkering with just one aspect of the complex planning system without recognizing knock on implications elsewhere. You could call this Pickles Law of unintended consequences – simplifying one aspect of the planning system whilst increasing windfall financial gains from planning consents simply creates a market incentive for developers to complicate other aspects of the planning system whilst the overall complexity of the planning system remains the same or increases.
It is clear that ministers no longer think that up to date local plans can be rapidly put into place to resolve the situation. Local plan adoption has slowed to a crawl whilst so many adopted plans are now out of date that it no longer makes a difference to appeal success rates. Lewis hinted that local authorities don’t have to rely on the local plan they could use the NPPF, and this needs to be seen in conjunction with the smoke signals that development ‘should not be at any cost’ and that unsustainable development should be refused, as seen in a rash of recent appeals. The intended signal is that fighting appeals is no longer betting on a three legged donkey. The irony is that this will encourage slower plan production, more appeals and less localism as the planning system becomes driven by the prejudices of ministers for the kind of schemes they like and dislike even down to weather they are designed in favoured architectural style.
Despite the Grand Old Duke of York results of ‘planning reform’ burned by its results and the controversies it as produced, as well as the natural desire from local authorities and developers for some stability so they can get on and plan, there is little appetite for paradigmatic reform.
So in the next article I will suggest so pragmatic and incremental reforms that might improve our broken system.