High Noon for the planning system chimed on 28 October with the publication of the White Paper "Local Growth: Realising Every Place's Potential". The DCLG Business Plan 2011-2015 followed with a timetable for implementation. If brought forward in their current form, the White Paper's proposals will dramatically change the dynamic of the planning framework.
The White Paper identifies the main problem with the current system as its being "the wrong way round, alienating communities through centrally imposed policies and targets. As a consequence, the planning system is often seen as a barrier to development, despite the desire of almost every local community to see new homes, more jobs, extra investment and better local environment". It would be hard to find anyone with knowledge of how the planning system operates who agrees with this analysis. If the justification for reform is based on unsound reasoning there is every prospect that the responses to these perceived flaws might themselves be flawed.
The proposed National Planning Framework (NPF) will be essential to fill the gap created by the loss of regional guidance. A NPF already operates in Scotland and provides an effective spatial strategy. The White Paper proposes a presumption in favour of "sustainable development" for all planning decisions. In Scotland, the objective of contributing to sustainable development is a requirement for producing the NPF and development plans but, at planning application level, it was "too difficult to determine with legal certainty, whether or not developments proposed were sustainable". It will be interesting to see if "sustainable development" can be defined with sufficient precision to apply at application level in England.
Devolution of planning powers to local government will also be progressed. Notwithstanding the High Court decision in favour of CALA Homes on 10 November, DCLG anticipates that future housing targets will be set locally under the provisions of the upcoming Localism Bill. This is already the case in Scotland, where few house builders would accept that sufficient land has been allocated under this system. However, in England, financial incentives will be provided to promote housing growth. Incentives will also support business and renewable energy development, although it remains to be seen how local communities will react to a major greenfield proposal in circumstances where financial considerations appear to be a key driver for politicians. Localism will be further supported through Neighbourhood Plans and community rights to build without planning permission. Is there really an appetite at a local level for individuals to support such initiatives? The Government also proposes measures for communities to protect green areas from development.
There is an inherent tension between providing financial incentives and giving communities increased control over development, which is likely to act as a constraint on development. These conflicting objectives are illustrated by the White Paper's description of the main functions of the planning system: to allow people to shape their communities (including to protect and promote environmental matters) whilst providing sufficient housing and supporting economic development. The White Paper fails to recognise both the existence of this tension and the role of planning system in resolving it.
There has been suggestion that applicant rights to appeal will be reduced. Rights of appeal have existed since the inception of the planning system and were intended to counter-balance the nationalisation of development rights. Restricting appeal rights will increase the importance of Courts in resolving planning conflicts. In 2009/10 53% of planning appeals conducted by way of Public Inquiry were granted and 39% in respect of Hearings. This demonstrates that in respect of larger planning applications, a significant number of refusals were not justified. The right of appeal is an important balancing mechanism within the system.
It is hard to envisage how this new planning system will work in practice. Even if local politicians seek greater growth, communities will have powers to limit proposals or to seek protection from development. The reforms will create considerable market uncertainty at a time when the development industry is almost at a standstill in many parts of the country. Local authority planners may be given more powers by one hand of central Government whilst the other hand taketh away - significant cuts affecting resources could undermine planning departments' ability to assume new responsibilities. Good, bad or ugly, these factors suggest that planning reform represents a significant gamble. The Localism Bill to be issued later this month will clarify how big this gamble will be.