Author: Matthew White, Partner and Head of UK Planning, London
I'm sure I am not alone in finding it difficult to be enthusiastic about today's general election. From a development perspective, there is little in the main parties' manifestos that stands out as new or innovative. The pledges that our would-be prime ministers have made are heavy on promise but light on detail, and deafeningly silent on deliverability. It is easy to commit to building a million new homes when there is no depth or substance as to exactly how this will be achieved. And with both parties ruling out any review of the green belt, I am left wondering what politicians think they will be doing in the next Parliament that hasn't already been definitively proven not to work in the last one.
The Conservatives, rightly I think, say that "we have not provided the infrastructure, parks, quality of space and design that turns housing into community and makes communities prosperous and sustainable." But do you have any confidence that more public money will be made available to tackle this under-investment? Proposals to capture the uplift in land value created by development and infrastructure suggest that lessons have not been learnt from the disastrously over-engineered and discredited CIL system.
The manifestos also commit to big-ticket infrastructure, including HS2, Heathrow and "northern powerhouse rail". Fortunately, the regime for nationally significant infrastructure projects is in rude health. Together with the Parliamentary hybrid bill system, promoters have access to a (relatively) efficient and reliable means of securing planning consents. There remains the perennial risk of losing party political support in the hokey-cokey world of projects falling in and out of fashion. But subject to that, getting planning permission for these grand projets is probably the most predictable – and therefore easiest – process to manage through planning.
By comparison, delivering smaller developments remains harder than ever. The Conservative manifesto promises to extend mobile coverage to 95 per cent of the UK, but look at the vehement local resistance that a single new mobile phone mast typically generates. Labour promises to ensure housing is "built for the many", but existing communities in places where people want to live fight house building at every turn.
The difference is that the planning system works at the national level, but is failing locally. Big problems – such as fixing “Britain’s broken housing market” – need national solutions and the political will to deliver them in the face of self-interested opposition. Tackling this means accepting that localism (a word that used to be ubiquitous in planning, but only appears in the UKIP manifesto at this election) doesn’t work. If the new government understands this, whoever may be in 10 Downing Street tomorrow, expect to see more development (particularly residential) being brought within the national planning system and fewer schemes needing a planning application at all, with a further expansion of permitted development rights.
What else can the development industry expect in the coming months? The short answer is not much. Converting long manifestos full of vague promises into detailed legislation would take considerable time, resources and political capital. With Brexit issues monopolising Westminster and Whitehall, those three things will be in desperately short supply. I cannot realistically see planning being anywhere near the top of the legislative agenda for the next five years.
I am proud to work in planning. Having a small part to play in the future of our towns and cities is a privilege. Planning can be an agent for change, for improvement, for restoration and renewal. It can also be a casual panacea for intractable political problems or a fig leaf for deep-rooted social issues that are too scandalising to air in public. Seventy years on from the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, it is time for planning to be taken seriously once again.
So whoever you vote for in today's election, and whoever wins, hold them to account for delivering the planning policies and practices that this country deserves.
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