By Chris Roberts, Senior Associate
The Government has announced its intention to pause and think over proposals for the reform of the planning system. Many Conservative councillors and MPs expressed their opposition, and some held that the Chesham and Amersham by-election earlier this year was lost on this very issue.
Now, a change of Cabinet minister affords the opportunity for a rethink, or perhaps even, a quiet abandonment of them altogether. It is certainly difficult to square Michael Gove’s statement to the Conservative Party conference of “…allowing communities to take back control of their futures and create greener and more beautiful places to live…” with anything but a major retrenchment. Similarly, the new Tory Party Chairman, Oliver Dowden, charged among other things with oversight of electoral strategy, called for the protection of towns and cities from “ugly developments”.
Many councillors believe that is what they are already doing. Whether the Government is in full retreat, or genuinely engaged in a rethink remains to be seen.
Here at Cratus, where ‘Our World is Local’, the determination of planning permission seems to us to be critical to the essential functions of local government. The ability to shape the future of a village, town or city is an essential bulwark against the idea that Whitehall knows best.
We are already a grossly over-centralised state. The mismanagement of Covid and ‘track and trace’ should lay to bed once and for all the idea that the governance of the country can be efficiently imposed by Ministerial command from the centre.
Yet it is obvious that not all is well with our planning system, and it behoves those of us dedicated to local determination to recognise that there are critical failures at this end of the process. There are faults also in developers’ land banking applications, and the question remains as to whether it is fair, or even possible, to expect the private sector to solve a housing crisis in the subsidised sector. However, those are matters for another article.
For now, we know the quality of local decision-making varies widely and there are considerable inconsistencies in advice given to applicants, even within local authorities. No one who wishes to see local government flourish can deny these failures undermine the desire to retain local decision making.
Most councillors will say that place-shaping is the most essential part of their function. However, this essential function is set up to exclude members of a Council’s executive. Local Government remains the only part of the planning system where the political executive is specifically excluded from decision-making. This makes no sense.
When my authority was functioning at its best (Council of the Year, I’ll have you know) our planning function had a strong system of delegation to officers and three local planning committees based upon our main town centres. Together these dealt with up to 98% of all applications and allowed us to stretch the interpretation of existing rules.
We also had a Strategic Planning Committee. This consisted of nine members, seven from the governing party and two from the opposition. The seven majority group members comprised the Leader of the Council, the Cabinet member for Regeneration, the Cabinet member for Housing and the Cabinet member for Corporate Property. This Committee heard less than 2% of all applications but they determined the big ones, those essential to the shaping of our borough.
For the applicant, this provided a consistency of advice and decision-making throughout the process, supported by an officer structure in which the functions of planning, highways, regeneration, economic development, environment, heritage and property were all placed in the same directorate, under the leadership of a single director.
For the applicant at a major site, this meant the first person they met and discussed their application with was the same director who would sign off the planning report and recommendation to members. There was no ‘alternative opinion’ or ‘different perspective’ as the application progressed through the system. The Council knew what it wanted, and the advice and decision-making structures ensured consistency throughout.
It is true that I received much criticism as a Council Leader for sitting on the Strategic Planning Committee. It was felt that, as Leader, I was likely to exert influence on the Committee’s decision. Well, they were correct about that. I wanted to exert the influence of my political office on matters crucial to the future of the Borough. What did strike me as anomalous was the fact that the Leader of the Opposition could sit on Planning, while the Leader of the Council was expected not to. Yet, it was my vision of the borough the electorate had voted for, not his.
With place-making among the most essential functions of any local authority it makes no sense to bar executive councillors from leading the committee which gives effect to it. After all, an appeal is submitted to the Secretary of State (the executive) for determination and not the House of Commons Select Committee of backbench MPs. In London, the Mayor (the executive) may call in an application, not the London Assembly members.
I have always believed this relatively simple change, to declare planning an executive function, is a simple and easy one for Ministers to take, whilst not threatening the local nature of decision making.
It would meet the test of Michael Gove in “…allowing communities to take back control of their futures…” by keeping planning decisions local, while ensuring greater clarity of understanding and advice for those trying to navigate their way through the system.