No longer carved in stone

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The Planning Bill promised radical reform, but have successive defeats in the House of Lords blunted its impact?

The passage of the planning bill through parliament has been controversial and arduous. Barely a week seems to go by without opponents securing a substantial amendment, or the government appearing to backtrack on its original intentions.

The sight of peers heaping successive defeats upon the government has led industry observers to wonder if its bold vision of a planning revolution remains intact, or whether it has been unmasked as as ill-conceived and flawed.

Despite the legislative trials, however, the impression of total failure is misleading. There are some serious disappointments, most notably the dropping of plans to tackle long delays in bringing forward major infrastructure projects such as Heathrow's Terminal 5, but many of the important ideas laid out by Stephen Byers, the former secretary of state for transport, local government and the regions, have survived.

The government revealed its plans for the most radical overhaul of the planning system in 50 years in December 2001. 'We need a better, simpler, faster, more accessible system that serves both businesses and the community,' Byers said in his foreword to the Planning Green Paper which was launched that month.

The Green Paper promised 'fundamental change', such as faster decision-making on planning applications and a thinning-out of the multiple layers of local, county and regional plans in circulation. The government also proposed a simplification of local development plans to enable them to be kept up to date; more community involvement in the planning process; and tackling the shortages of staff, skills and resources that beset planning departments.

The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill was launched in late 2002 but moved slowly through parliament.

Unusually for any bill, it was eventually held over the summer recess of 2003 to a second parliamentary session, to allow time for further amendments on urban development corporations and compulsory purchase.

Watered down

Along the way, plans to shorten the life of planning permissions from five to three years and to replace outline planning permissions with 'statements of development principle' were watered down, and proposals to replace controversial section 106 agreements, under which developers make payments to local authorities to mitigate the impact of their schemes, were dropped and resurrected as an 'optional' tariff.

The House of Lords also forced amendments to give local councils a say in regional planning strategies and delay the adoption of the London Plan by the capital's local councils. The bill is now returning to Commons and the government hopes it will finally receive royal assent this month.

However, one of the most significant changes to remain is the abolition of county structure plans, which will deprive county councils of most of their power to allocate housing and employment land. These decisions will now be taken at regional level and built into regional spatial strategies.

Michael Crook, chairman of the planning and environment group at Cushman & Wakefield Healey & Baker, is among those who believe the change will help to get new housing built, particularly in the south-east, where councils have been notoriously reluctant to approve housing applications that may be unpopular with local voters.

Infrastructure projects are also more likely to move forward under the regional system, Crook believes: 'This makes it easier for potentially unpopular decisions to be taken. The regional assemblies will want to balance the needs of the region as a whole... [and] not be so influenced by local concerns.'

Although the Lords insisted that councils retain a say in the formation of regional plans, Crook points out that they did not oppose the fundamental principle of shifting power to the regions.

Another significant survivor is the replacement of local development plans with local development frameworks. The old local plans run to several hundred pages and are so detailed and painstakingly produced over several years that they are often obsolete by the time they are published. According to the government, 214 were out of date at the time of the Green Paper, creating uncertainty and holding back development. The new frameworks are intended to be much less detailed overall and will be quicker to produce and update.

Philip Robin, head of planning at King Sturge, believes the government's target of updates every three years is 'highly optimistic' but adds that the new frameworks are 'a sensible way forward'. Both he and Crook believe planning departments and councils will need time to adjust to the new system, particularly when planners continue to be starved of resources, and it will be several years before any of the new-look frameworks are actually produced.

Core ideas

We’re going to move from one overly complex system to another

Stuart Robinson, Cb Richard Ellis

Mike Hayes, president of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), welcomes the new frameworks: 'I think they stand a chance,' he says. 'The core idea is regular updates and to keep the local plan rolling forward. That seems to be to be a very important and helpful idea. The problem has always been that a regeneration proposal would be running ahead of the planning system. At least we're getting to the point where planning can maybe keep up and even get ahead.'

In contrast to the original Green Paper, the bill contains nothing on speeding up decisions on planning applications or tackling shortages of staff, skills and equipment.

Yet the government claims that its planning delivery grant, whereby £350m is to be handed out to councils between 2003 and 2006 as a reward for running efficient planning departments, is cutting decision times. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister points to quarterly statistics for July to September 2003, the latest available at the time of going to press, which show that 73% of all planning decisions were made within eight weeks, an improvement of 8% on the same quarter in 2002.

The government has also commissioned Sir John Egan to conduct a 'skills review' for delivery of its Sustainable Communities Plan, that will encompass planning and is due to report this month.

Yet Robin at King Sturge thinks further improvements in decision times are unlikely:

'I think one has to accept that planning is becoming increasingly complex, particularly because of environmental issues, so I just don't see a system happening where you can get applications processed very quickly.'

All observers agree that the planning departments remain drastically under-resourced. Although Hayes says the delivery grant is significant and it is allowing councils to recruit and train more planners, he adds, 'It is also true that far too many planners are grossly overworked and stressed'.

The RTPI claims that a further 4,000 planners are needed to make the system work properly.

Crook notes: 'The simple truth is they do not have the people there to make the system work much faster.'

For many, the most controversial measure of the bill remains the planning tariff. First proposed immediately after the green paper in 2002 as a replacement for section 106, the tariff was then dropped, then resurrected as an 'optional' alternative to section 106 negotiations.

The RICS is in favour of the tariff 'in principle' but controversy rages on whether the tariff will remain truly optional once councils have gone to the trouble of setting it. The government is to convene a 'ministerial task force' of interest groups, including the RICS and the BPF, along with the House builders Federation and the CBI, to work out details of how the charge might work.

This debate has been given added urgency after the Barker Review of housing supply recommended additional taxes on landowners in its final report of 17 March.

One of the bill's fiercest critics is Stuart Robinson, senior director of planning at CB Richard Ellis, who believes that the single most important issue has been ignored: underfunding.

'We're going to move from one overly complex system to another,' Robinson predicts. He adds: 'This is all going to be gravy for the consultants. There is more legislation, an obscure planning gain system and yet another set of plan-making schemes. Everyone is hoping this new system will be quicker but it's difficult to see how things will improve. A lot of local authorities simply haven't got the resources to adapt to all these requirements.'

Yet Hayes at the RTPI believes the bill has 'gone a long way to delivering on the Green Paper'.

He says: 'You can't restructure the planning system for the first time in several decades without breaking some eggs.'

THEN…

Key objectives in the Planning Green Paper of December 2001
  •  Simplify the heirachy of local, county and regional plans
  •  Simplify and speed up drafting of local development plans
  •  Speed up decision-making on applications
  •  Tackle shortages of skills and staff in planning departments
  •  Improve community engagement with planning process
  •  Proposals to replace negotiated section 106 planning agreements with a fixed fee follow Green Paper
  •  Moves to speed up planning for key infrastructure projects are announced in the weeks following the Green Paper
  • …AND NOW

  •  County structure plans to be abolished and the power to make housing and employment allocations will shift to regional authorities
  •  Shorter, less detailed local development frameworks introduced, which must be updated every three years
  •  No provision for faster decisions on planning applications. However, the government has launched a planning delivery grant to reward councils for efficient service
  •  No provision for tackling skills shortages, although the government claims the planning delivery grant is helping matters
  •  Local authorities to provide a statement of community involvement when drafting local development frameworks
  •  Fixed fee proposal was dropped in July 2002 but an 'optional' planning tariff to be inserted in the bill
  •  Falconer's proposals on infrastructure projects were dropped in July 2002. However, the government hopes the strengthened regional spatial strategies will help to bring them forward
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