I read an article recently which told the story of an Oxford philosopher who spent a long evening with colleagues furiously debating the meaning of life. After eventually collapsing into bed, he awoke in the middle of the night with a brilliant thought. He scribbled it down on a pad beside the bed and went back to sleep. In the morning, he looked down at his notepad. It said “more holes in bigger cheese.”
After reading the Government’s announcement yesterday of what it describes as “the most radical reforms to our planning system since the Second World War”, I couldn’t help but think of this story. The reforms certainly seem moderately useful. But transformational they are not. We’ve been here before. It’s more holes in bigger cheese.
Anyone with the pleasure of familiarity with Part III of the Town and Country Planning Act will know that there are pages and pages containing manifestations of what successive governments have proposed as the one shot solution to all of our planning problems. Local development orders. Neighbourhood development orders. Special development zones. Simplified planning zones. Having been proposed with fanfare, these provisions sit like sad relics in the Act, a reminder of what happens when policies that sound good in theory collide with the interminable gears of our planning system. These ideas were no doubt useful in delivering certain schemes in particular circumstances. But they didn’t realise the aim that we all want: a planning system which is robust enough to require projects which are good for the economy, health and the environment, but which does not present so many obstacles in terms of time and money that developers either give up or do not try in the first place.
So what do we do? Russell Harris QC of Landmark Chambers has written compellingly in recent weeks (see here) arguing for what he describes as a “21st century New Deal” (the Prime Minister is obviously a fellow reader). My thoughts are more modest and amount to the same advice that my Dad gives his football team every weekend: let’s get the fundamentals right. How about operating the system that we do have efficiently and well?
The Prime Minister said yesterday that “Time is money. And the newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and prosperity of this country.” The Prime Minister is, of course, right about delay. But it is not the “newt-counting” (whether literal or metaphorical) that is the ultimate source. Environmental impact assessment has moved on from the days of submitting reams of irrelevant chapters, and towards a slimmed down assessment which addresses only those topics which are relevant to the particular development. In London those chapters will be things like wind, transport, air quality, daylight/sunlight, socio-economic factors- that is, all of the areas that a developer needs to assess anyway, EIA or not. To take the Prime Minister’s direct example: the need to assess newts only arises if the development is likely to have a significant impact on newts or their habitats. And even if the Government abolished the EIA regulations tomorrow, the impact of a development on a protected species would be a material consideration that a court could not allow a planning authority to ignore.
So what is the cause of this delay, if not newts? In my experience, it is mostly a cumulation of a series of fairly prosaic occurrences. Let’s take a few examples. It often takes months to schedule a pre-application meeting with a planning authority and then a further wait (again, months) for comments — only for the process to repeat itself (often several times) if the scheme changes (however slightly) in response to those comments. Consultees (internal and external) fail to engage with the process and need to be chased by the planning officer. Council meetings are booked up months in advance and if the allotted slot is missed for any reason, then it’s a bit like missing a slot at Heathrow and you’re at the back of the queue. And for an appeal (in normal times), a developer will often be waiting six weeks just to have a scheme registered in the system.
These small inefficiencies (of which the above are just examples) all add up to make a very large inefficiency which leaves good projects languishing in the system for years. What is needed to correct them is, mostly, resources. There should be enough planning officers to assess schemes with the diligence and speed that such a critical aspect of our economy and society deserves. Council meetings should be held every week if that is what is required to deal with all of the schemes under consideration in a reasonable way. More planning lawyers to progress section 106 agreements, more Inspectors with more specialist experience. In my view, this would be far more transformational to the way that schemes move through the system than the reforms announced today.
Let’s get the fundamentals right. Otherwise we’re just nibbling around the edges.
Annika Holden is currently on maternity leave.
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