Planning system's balancing acts
Our planning system should encourage development and growth but it also needs to protect our environment, public spaces and heritage, says Jack Dromey
A planning system fit for purpose can contribute towards our future economic prosperity. Labour wants a planning system that supports jobs and growth, meets our need for affordable housing and contributes towards young people’s future prosperity.
But it is not the planning system that is to blame for Britain’s faltering economic recovery or growing housing crisis. The blame lies with this Government’s reckless and ill-thought-out policies.
In the second quarter of this year, permissions for new homes fell to 25,000, the second lowest number granted in any quarter in the past five years, and 35,000 lower than the quarterly requirement of nearly 60,000 if we are to meet our housing need.
This disastrous fall cannot be pinned on a planning system that has in the past delivered over 60,000 permissions for new homes in one quarter but is a result of this Government’s decision to rip-up regional spatial strategies over a year ago and put nothing in their place.
As a result the Government caused huge uncertainty and paralysed the planning system. The natural reaction of house builders, businesses and investors, unsure of the investment environment, was to withhold investment thereby reducing house building and stifling economic growth.
Panicked by a planning system in chaos and its failure to grow the economy, the Government published the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), trumpeting it as the solution for a mess of their own creation.
Let’s be clear, Labour supports the streamlining of the planning system. Labour recognises that an improved planning system can better help us meet our future need for economic development, housing, transport and infrastructure, climate mitigation, and energy needs and capacity. Labour wants a planning system that works for the construction sector and developers, and supports jobs and growth.
We’ve already committed to using our bankers’ bonus tax to build 25,000 homes, create 20,000 jobs and several times more in the supply chain, including as many as 1,500 construction apprenticeships.
But there needs to be a balance in the planning system, rightly supporting appropriate growth and development opportunities, but also protecting the environment, public space and our heritage.
The NPPF as currently drafted does not give confidence to those who want to see protection to our countryside and risks antagonising local communities rather than engaging them.
This will result in greater opposition, more appeals and a less-effective planning system. It is also a missed opportunity for the Government to set out its vision for the future of England. Rather than sit down and listen to the genuine concerns of broad-based organisations such as the National Trust, who with the other organisations have a combined membership of more than six million, the Government responded by calling them ‘left-wing’, ‘semi-hysterical’ and accusing them of ‘nihilistic selfishness’. We badly need more development, in the right place and well designed.
This will not be achieved by derisive criticism and polarising debate but, instead, by building a sensible consensus around sustainable development.
There must be a workable presumption, therefore, in favour of genuine sustainable development that gives that confidence our countryside and environment will be protected.
The Government must restate its commitment to brown-field development, encouraging local authorities to set their own targets in the spirit of localism. Maximising brown-field development is key. Labour’s ‘Brownfield First’ policy saw new dwellings built on brown-field sites increase from 55% to 76%.
The Government must back affordable housing. As currently drafted, the framework implies that affordable housing can be traded off to make a scheme more viable.
That is wrong. It is also at risk from the way in which the Government wishes to implement the community infrastructure levy. Affordable housing is not a sideshow; it is fundamental to meeting a growing housing crisis and ensuring the future prosperity of our young people.
Finally, there is a real risk that all local development frameworks will be considered out of date, providing communities with little protection. This can only lead to a planning system that is increasingly combative rather than consensual, applications will be decided by the courts as appeals go through the roof and lawyers will profit while communities suffer. The Government should therefore accept Labour’s proposed transitional arrangements in order to ensure certainty for local people, communities and developers alike.
The Government is in a panic having recognised the damage it has wreaked in the planning system, stifling growth. In its haste to clear up its own mess, the Government is attempting to push through a document of considerable national importance by shutting down debate, smearing all those with genuine concerns as anti-development when the truth is nothing of the kind.
The Government needs to end the confusion and uncertainty, committing to sitting down with those who hold genuine concerns. And at the end of the consultative process, they should hold a vote on the final document in Parliament so that we have a planning system that commands public trust.
Jack Dromey is shadow minister for communities and local government and Labour MP for Birmingham Erdington.
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