Growth and Infrastructure Bill is in Urgent Need of Replanting
On the 18th October 2012 a new Bill was launched to help put growth firmly back on the agenda. This Bill represents a missed opportunity to help develop planning as a core component of the growth agenda ensuring a focus towards sustainable development. Instead we see a well-rehearsed fix set within more top down control of development matters which raises more questions than it answers. Today there are likely to be some fireworks as the Bill receives its second reading in Parliament.
As a planner I am very concerned at how political short termism is hijacking the planning system and ignoring the excellent examples out there in the real world of growth and development. Such interventions are dangerous distractions and have the ability to derail some real progress that is being made.
This ill-thought out Bill fails to connect the key issues facing economic growth within one coherent strategy. Uncertainty, high business rates, lack of financial support and investment are the key barriers to growth and perversely in this bill business rates revaluations are actually delayed. The lack of appreciation of the environment and community as assets for development reflects a continuing and dangerous one dimensional view of economic growth, whilst the vesting of some essentially local decisions with the Secretary of State highlights the impending death of localism.
The Bill is presented at a time when public confidence in politicians is at its lowest and ministers should not forget their populist mantra of localism, localism localism. Now amidst concerns that the wrong sort of localism might result in NIMBYISM the government have seen fit to change the agenda in favour of Secretary of State centralism, centralism centralism. Never has the planning system been in such a 'pickle'.
The lessons of history are important here. Many past political interventions have sought to fast track planning decisions and all have failed. It is important to recognise that planning decisions are complex and require scrutiny and public consultation to ensure that the business case is valid and that opposition is based on sound planning arguments. Ill thought out development creates a legacy that will undermine the economy as much as an over restrictive planning system. And there are also legal safeguards to consider.
Major development decisions are complex and necessarily will take time if they are to have proper scrutiny and public involvement. The government seem to think that a developer led approach for development is inherently good and any opposition is, in the words of George Osborn from the environmental taliban. This polarisation between development and environment has no place in the 21st century planning system and reflects the disintegrated nature of government policy.
Furthermore fast tracking of national infrastructure decisions runs the risk of falling foul of the consultation requirements of the Aarhus Convention (remember the consultation by the previous government on nuclear power failed due to its brevity and lack of information requiring a repeat exercise).
The Bill removes some 'major' infrastructure and other industrial estate/business park decisions from local authority control and focuses on failing authorities (whatever this means), placing them under the auspices of the planning inspectorate, where there is a real risk that delays in local authority decision making will only be transferred into delays at national level as planning inspectors fail to cope with the increasing demands being placed upon them. Here, the bill has significant resource implications and the pressure on planning inspectors will be immense especially given recent cuts in their numbers.
It is unclear to me why the dust from the NPPF shouldn't be allowed to settle before politicians start fiddling again while the economy, society and the environment is in danger of burning. Whetehr it be new conservatories, mobile telephone masts in National Parks, relaxation of building regulations, the government can't seem to let planners get on with their work. What wee urgently need is time for the new system to bed in rather than knee jerk add-ons that run the risk of creating more uncertainty in planning.
There is an opportunity out there but someone needs to tell the government to stop putting too much fertiliser on the planning system otherwise they will surely kill the seedling that is the new economy. The recent Heseltine report on growth provides salutatory lessons here and, in my view, challenges the need for this ill-thought out Bill at all.
Let the fireworks commence.