Alex Thomson, Chief Executive of the Localis think tank, drafted the Conservatives’ reforms for planning. He shared his perspective on the progress made in government at the Northern Ireland Environment Forum.
Common ground between the coalition partners at Westminster in 2010 allowed for considerable progress in planning reform but Alex Thomson says that opposition from developers and lawyers has halted some of the more radical proposals.
Thomson, who leads the Localis local government think tank, outlined his assessment of the Government’s policy at the Northern Ireland Environment Forum. He previously worked as the Conservative Party’s policy adviser for decentralisation and local government. He has also worked as a civil servant in the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
While in opposition, he wrote the Open Source Planning green paper which described England’s planning system as “broken, centralised, bureaucratic” and delivering only low levels of house-building.
Four principles for change were outlined when it was published in February 2010:
1. local people should shape their own surroundings;
2. the process should be “rooted in civic engagement”;
3. there should be the “greatest possible degree of local control”; and
4. decentralising power and strengthening society.
Thomson acknowledges that there was little emphasis on economic growth but there is now a “massive” focus on it. The green paper proposed that “every single corner of England should be covered by a neighbourhood plan” so that everyone could influence their surroundings and that a certain minimum quota of houses is built in each area. Each local plan would then be built up from the neighbourhood plans “so that it would be entirely bottom-up”.
The top-down regional planning system would be abolished although the Government would still set the overall policy framework. There would be also a presumption in favour of granting permission – with a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision – but this would be balanced by third party appeals where a decision was procedurally or factually wrong.
• rapidly abolish regional spatial strategies and return decision-making powers on housing and planning to local councils;
• give people living in neighbourhoods “far more ability” to determine the shape of their places;
• set up an “efficient and democratically accountable” system to fast-track major infrastructure projects.
• publish a simple and consolidated national planning framework; and
• maintain the green belt and other areas of conservation.
The post-election Queen’s speech featured a Localism Bill, to give the reforms a quick start, and this became law in November 2011. He related: “If the Treasury found anything that looked like it could help start growth and cost them no money, it was very popular indeed and streamlining the planning system was one of those things.”
The broad policy agenda was implemented albeit with some changes. Third party appeals were abandoned after proving “hugely unpopular with everyone in the development industry”. Thomson maintains that developers did not understand or “bother to understand” the proposal.
The current presumption is not as clear as ‘yes-no’ due to objections by planning barristers. Neighbourhood plans are in place (on an opt-in basis) but do not provide “universal” coverage of England as this would increase costs.
Since 2010, over 375,000 new homes have been built, more than half of local authorities have adopted a local plan, and the system has become quicker.
A senior civil servant has told Thomson that “less is more” and reducing detailed planning guidance to a short document is “very good for applicants but also very good for the general public who have a far greater chance of understanding what planning is and what it seeks to do.”
The duty to co-operate was in place in legislation but the official found that it was “not achieving what it might do.” Plenty of consulting was taking place but not necessarily co-operation.
Regional planning has been dissolved. The new homes bonus is paid out to councils for each home built and business rates can also be retained at local authority level. It is questionable whether these incentives are “big enough to drive behaviours”.
Thomson had hoped that local plans would be more “free and permissive” with land use but some of the trends – such as converting offices into houses – are unpopular with local authorities. The scope of permitted development has been increased but a proposal to give householders more autonomy over residential extensions was reversed.
Nearly 1,000 neighbourhood plans are now being prepared across England with more than half of council areas across the country having at least one. The nine completed plans have been approved in local referenda but the small number of polls implies that this type of planning is “not the swiftest and easiest of things to do.”
“I don’t think the Government is making enough of it,” Thomson commented on neighbourhood plans, describing this as a “genuinely exciting” policy.
Localism was misunderstood as ‘nimby-ism’ by the media and Conservative candidates “but that isn’t the way it works.” While a lot of people feel let down by the policy, he argues that they “weren’t paying attention in the first place.”
Giving local authorities only one year to put their plans in place was “slightly unwise.” Extending this time to two years could have been more practical. The ‘community infrastructure levy’ has been difficult to implement and incentives need to be more reliable.
Further change can be expected.
Labour, for example, has commissioned a housing review led by Sir Michael Lyons to consider how it can build 200,000 homes per year in England. Labour also wants to free up land by taking planning permission away from developers who fail to build.
The Conservatives have revived a proposal for a new town in Kent but there are “massive questions” over whether enough finance and infrastructure will be available to support it. Land auctions would try to capture more of the local land value for councils.
Some commentators are also debating the concept of individual payments – whereby a developer would pay compensation to those affected by a development in return for the right to build.
This is the most radical option as it would move away from any form of land use planning by the state.