David Cameron Is this the best way to make good policy?
Later today we will get some detail into the long awaited final National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). As I sit typing I can hear the various protagonists preparing their verbal weaponry for whatever eventually emerges. It is a complex battleground with the future direction of planning at stake. However, with arguments raging on both sides about the possible positive or negative impacts of the NPPF, there has been one dimension to the NPPF debate that has escaped significant scrutiny. I refer to the process by which the NPPF itself has come into being.
The policy making process is important and often overlooked; indeed it can be argued that the process by which a policy comes into being is every bit as important as the end product itself. For example, if large numbers of people feel that their views have been ignored any policy will be vulnerable to challenge and protest however good it is. Consequently, the policy making process should be clear and transparent so that even if people disagree with the decision and detail they can at least understand how that decision was reached.
So in tracking the NPPF from its origins emanating from the 2010 open source green paper of the Conservative party in opposition, we start to see a policy process that is fixed in ideological positioning based on individual expert views rather than through any deliberative process of public consultation and engagement. It was indeed unfortunate that planners themselves were not consulted in any substantive manner. By the time public engagement was undertaken the policy was to all intents and purposes fixed. This is problematic as for many it gives the distinct impression that consultation is tokenistic.
The process also reveals an important disregard for standard planning protocols. According to their material the planning system was broken and needed wholesale reform. Key to this was the dismantling of the regional planning layer which had been seen as top down and wasteful. Secretary of State Eric Pickles proceeded with the abolition before undertaking the necessary Strategic Environmental Assessment that would help justify such a decision. Amazingly the draft SEA was presented for consultation over a year after the proposed abolition which is perverse. Not surprisingly he has had a lot of legal interruptions over the legality of this decision with Regional Spatial Strategies still technically in place. .
The draft NPPF itself was then the product of a practitioners advisory group of 4 'independent' experts across the built environment which produced a draft that was then modified by civil servants into the now celebrated 52 page draft which reduced the 1000 odd pages of current planning policy.
The 2011 consultation now proceeded in two phases . First a government appointed Select Committee took both written and oral evidence from a range of organisations and experts and then a wider public consultation occurred involving over 14000 responses. Over the summer of 2011 planning was rarely off the front pages of the newspapers; such was the heat of the debate over the way the NPPF was seen as either a threat or opportunity. Well orchestrated campaigns by the National Trust and the Daily Telegraph mobilised public opinion against the perceived threat to the countryside. Whilst house builders and developers championed a relaxation of controls over planning.
The Select Committee reported just before Christmas with very strong criticism of the NPPF. It challenged the economic primacy of the thinking behind the sustainable development definition and demanded a significant redrafting of much of the document. Now given that range of expert witnesses supporting this all party committee it was surprising how little notice appeared to be taken of the report.
However, if one looks carefully we can start to see over this period the increased influence of the Treasury on the process albeit behind the scenes. This was given fresh impetus when the Chancellor started talking about the importance of freeing the country from the twin burdens of planning and the environment. Yet little evidence was presented to substantiate such claims. Planner bashing was in full cry and few voices of dissent were audible from the Royal Town Planning Institute .
We then have had after the end of the consultation period a 'phoney' war with each side claiming the need for changes with an increasing number of celebrities stepping into the political limelight.
Given the concerns of the Select Committee and the unprecedented number of public responses to the consultation it was clear to me that a revised draft should have undergone a further period of consultation before becoming final. However it was made clear that this would not happen. Furthermore, we start to see evidence of lobbying to brief ministers on the NPPF after the consultation period had ended which again muddies the waters and raises suspicions of how policy is actually being made in its final forms. Issues of power and influence rear their ugly head.
So I sit waiting . But in the pit of my stomach there is a view that whatever final form the NPPF takes the process has been unsatisfactory and has only served to make me and a large number of public deeply suspicious of the government in their dealings and policy making processes. This is all unecessary. In such respects the government is storing up trouble for itself. If a more transparent and open approach to policy making had been made from the outset I feel more people would have been happier with the outcome. It is the perception that this government will not listen to people unless they support their own views which now dominates much public policy. This is breath-taking in its arrogance and goes right against the very foundations of government policy on localism. Squaring that circle is my challenge as I retire to wonder what the day ahead will bring.