Tuesday, 11 March 2014

On the politics of pre-election planning policy

Last week's blog speculated on the presence of a Malcom Tucker-type figure in Conservative Party HQ contemplating how to endorse a call for new homes nationally whilst at the same time conveying to MPs and residents an impression that there are grounds to object locally. 

As the election looms, there is further evidence that our Mr Tucker figure has his eye on the Tories' core demographic following a brouhaha in Reigate & Banstead in which Conservative MP Crispin Blunt claimed (here) that "councillors were railroaded by the inspector to add areas of Green Belt."

In a letter from Nick Boles to PINS on inspector's reporting of local plans, Mr Boles states that he was "disturbed by the Inspector's use of language, which invited misinterpretation of government policy and misunderstanding about the local authority's role in drawing up all of the policies in the draft plan."

Mr Boles' letter states that "the Framework makes clear that a Green Belt boundary may be altered only in exceptional circumstances and reiterates the importance and permanence of the Green Belt." Indeed it does. Paragraph 47 states that local plans should meet "the full, objectively assessed needs for market and affordable housing in the housing market area, as far as is consistent with the policies set out in this Framework". A written ministerial statement this year also noted the Secretary of State’s policy position, that unmet need is unlikely to outweigh harm to the green belt and other harm to constitute the “very special circumstances” justifying inappropriate development in the green belt.

The NPPF also states, however, that Green Belt boundaries can be amended through the preparation or review of a local plan (para 83) and that, at that time, LPAs should take account of the need to promote sustainable patterns of development. "They should consider the consequences for sustainable development of channelling development towards urban areas inside the Green Belt boundary, towards towns and villages inset within the Green Belt or towards locations beyond the outer Green Belt boundary" (Paragraph 84).

I have had a look at the Reigate & Banstead Inspector's Report and it actually appears quite measured. In relation to public opposition to Green Belt release the report states that "while I required further work to resolve the ambivalence in the Plan, it is the Council’s own objective evidence which identifies Green Belt releases to meet part, but not all, of the assessed housing need."

Mindful then of faceless Bristol-based bureaucrats bullying LPAs into meeting their full, objectively assessed housing requirements, especially having gone through the rigmarole of revoking RSSs, Mr Boles states in relation to Green Belt review that it must "always be transparently clear that it is the local authority itself which has chosen that path – and it is important that this is reflected in the drafting of Inspectors’ reports."

Green Belt boundary changes are controversial. Of course they, but what are the alternative paths for an LPA that cannot achieve a political consensus? To either not meet full, objectively assessed need, or to rely on a neighbouring authority to make provision for it? Down these paths lie unsoundness. Messers Blunt and Boles might not like it, but the appearance of an inspector at the business end of the process to make controversial decisions and disappear faster than a nimby can say 'petition' might actually be the best path for a LPA to take.

But then, hang on, having read Mr Boles' letter, why should a LPA bother to undertake a Green Belt review over the next twelve months at all? It is made clear that the Secretary of Stage will consider exercising his statutory powers of intervention in local plans before they are adopted where a planning inspector, the faceless Bristol-based bureaucrat, has recommended a Green Belt review that is not supported by the LPA, our brave champions of local democracy.

The Reigate & Banstead Inspector's Report is to be considered at an Executive Meeting on 20 March and a Council meeting on 10 April. Presumably if the Council choose not to accept the inspector's modifications Mr Pickles will intervene and the can can be kicked into the next parliament. We shall see.

There was Localism. Then there was Muscular Localism. What is this? Centralist Localism? Whatever it is Mr Boles' intervention is a further indication that the pre-election starting pistol has been fired in Eland House, which means that the next year promises to be as turbulent for planning as the last four.

Update. 23 June 2014.

Planning Resource is reporting today that, following the delay caused by Mr Boles' intervention,  Reigate & Banstead's executive has voted to adopt its core strategy.

"An officers' report for the meeting, which recommended adoption, concluded that, following legal advice on the exchange of letters, there had been no change in government policy and the inspector had not "erred in his conclusions on the soundness of the [document]".

Messers Blunt and Boles might have scored themselves some headlines then, but clearly nobody has been railroaded and nobody has invited misinterpretation of the LPA's role. The core strategy will be adopted in accordance with the inspector's recommendation, just a few months later than it could have been.

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