I’ve been out and about a lot lately, at different Councils and PAS events, talking to officers and councillors about planning reform. There’s a mixed response, ranging from ‘car crash’ to ‘about time’. I haven’t noticed any patterns based along political party lines. But here’s a summary of the views from the coalface of local government – and most importantly, from the people needed to make the Government’s reforms work.
Community involvement. Just about everybody agrees that more community involvement and influence over the planning is a good thing. Some councillors think ‘great, my time, and that of my community, has come’. Some say that they are doing this already and plan on a local, neighbourhood basis anyway. There’s no doubt that there has been some very good community led planning going on for years. Just about everybody recognises that it’s hard (‘I can’t get people interested in anything’ and ‘they’ll run a mile if they have real responsibility’) and takes time, energy and often money. We need to work harder and do better.
But many don’t think the introduction of a new process and tier of plan-making was necessary, and more aren’t convinced that it will result in significantly more house building than would have happened otherwise. When you explain the logic – that more involvement, more influence, lower level decision-making etc should lead to more ownership and less opposition – well, there are audible snorts of laughter in the room. Although nearly everybody acknowledges that a shortage of affordable (market and social) housing is an issue in their area, and that the old model to get affordable housing via S106 obligations is broken, there is cynicism about whether the current changes will fix it.
Localism and growth. Many councillors don’t think the words coming out of ministers’ mouths about localism and the principle of growth ring true. They find it hard to explain to constituents that they have power and influence, but only over decisions to say yes, or ones that don’t go against what the Council’s strategic objectives are. Residents have picked up on the rhetoric over local control and resent the ‘well yes but…..’ which follows. . And if residents worry, so do their councillors. Most councillors want to get re-elected.
The whole incentives for growth argument makes people a bit cross. There’s nothing like a chat about money to get people going. Councillors recognise that ‘out with the Housing Planning and Delivery Grant and in with the New Homes Bonus’ (NHB) means that it isn’t ‘new’ money, and expectations have been set up amongst the community that NHB is theirs to spend. It’s not, it’s the local authority’s and although some are channelling it directly out into the community, many more are keeping it to plug budget cuts elsewhere. That might be against what the government expects, but councillors think its their call to make. One councillor said to me and ‘my residents would rather pay the council to not have any more housing’ – NHB or community infrastructure levy was not going to change their minds. The whole infrastructure issue is a tricky one. People know that often, a new housing development does not instantly result in a new school class room or an extra doctor on the rosta at the surgery; things aren’t that simple, or quick. I think it’s better to make a longer time argument, about the need for growth to sustain places, keep services going, provide housing (even, shock horror, for ‘incomers’) and balance population demographics.
And in some parts of the country, even with the will of the council and the community, there just aren’t the developments coming forward. One Council cancelled its Development Management Committee one month recently because there was nothing on the agenda – no committee applications to determine.
Less interference. People welcome the promised reduction in central guidance and regulation….except for the loss of the bits they like. And not everyone, councillors especially, believe the government will be able to change and stop telling local authorities what to do. Outside of the planning field this is exemplified in the bins debate and authorities being told by central government how often they should empty them. In planning, especially for councillors, it’s all about the planning inspectorate. Never popular with councillors, the localism agenda has given more fuel to the fire. How dare they overturn local, democratically made decisions? In fact its a very, very small proportion of applications that are dealt with by the Inspectorate, but to Councillors, appeal decisions are an affront to their role.
The Duty to Co-operate, despite being active for a couple of months now, is pretty much an unknown. Strategic planning can involve making a difficult decisions and talking to people who you might fundamentally disagree with, or dislike. This is really a test of councillors leadership skills. Some good stuff has been going on for a while – where there was already a will to make it work. But a duty to do it is different. Too early, really, to see how this will pan out.
So, a mixed bag of responses as you’d expect. A sense of waiting, to see what happens. Watch this space.