Wednesday, 21 May 2014

A general election is coming, which means more planning changes are too

The general election campaign starting pistol has well-and-truly now been fired and the prominence of the housing crisis in the national conciousness means that planning will have a high profile in the respective campaigns.

Of the two main parties it is the Conservative’s strategist’s that have the hardest task over the next twelve months. If I had a pound for every time I’d heard “Yes, absolutely, we need new homes, but I just don’t think this is the right place for them (‘The NIMBY’s creed), I’d have, well, a few pounds. How to endorse then 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?

The tangle that students of planning and public policy will remember this Government for is that it sold, and continues to sell, 'local decision-making', when it should have sold 'local decision-making provided that you have a Local Plan that meets objectively assessed housing need and makes provision for a five year supply'. When it became apparent that, in practice, local decision-making means either saying no or choosing to kick a can down the road, attempts to drive development from the centre were used by the CPRE and others to portray a taking back of powers that were never really offered in the first place.

This Telegraph piece from the weekend shows Labour’s strategists have the easier task because they can cynically choose to ignore the lessons of this Government and keep playing the localism card. Localism is the policy of opposition. Not only is it a well-meaning and attractive-sounding counterweight to 'top-down' Government planning via the Planning Inspectorate, but it is also the default setting of local residents faced with new development.

What then might the next parliament bring? History shows a tendency for new Governments to mark their arrival with planning legislation or reform so what might be expected if the Conservatives or Labour win outright next year? Whilst I am not sure I agree with David Cameron's assertion that planning has been "radically changed", it is certainly true that the development management process has been liberalised and think tanks like Policy Exchange will be promoting a stream-lined policy regime with local communities receiving direct payments for accepting new development. Labour has announced a call for decentralisation based around local economic areas, which might yield a return to the sub-regional planning advocated by the Centre For Cities.

What can be said with certainty is that when the political landscape changes, a change in the planning landscape is never far behind.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Cheshire East Update: Fighting the good fight

"Whilst it is important that we do deliver on housing, it is also crucial that we continue to fight developers who put profit ahead of people, and development ahead of our countryside." So said, Michael Jones of Cheshire East in his Leader's Speech a couple of weeks ago.

The council certainly is fighting against the schemes that it considers will deliver the wrong kind of housing. It was confirmed yesterday that it will be challenging the Elworth Hall Farm, Sandbach appeal decision, another where a planning inspector has found that a five year supply of deliverable housing land cannot be demonstrated.

There is at least a consistency to this approach, but coincidentally I understand that at the same time as the Council was confirming this challenge a judge at the Administrative Court in Manchester was dismissing the challenge it made in December to the Congleton Road, Sandbach appeal decision, which also found that there was not a demonstrable five year supply.

Mr Jones is clearly so confident of the soundness of the Submission Draft - Local Plan Strategy that proposals that do not accord out with it but could otherwise be said to be sustainable are being dismissed as "unwanted", and at some point the Council will have a five year supply of deliverable housing land (the council has resolved to approve 3,800 units since October 2013).

If that supply cannot though be demonstrated prior to the examination of the Submission Draft - Local Plan Strategy, which Mr Jones expects to take place this summer, there has to be a more than distinct possibility that the examination inspector will recommend that the Local Plan Strategy document will be, at best, delayed and, at worst, withdrawn. In that scenario the council will rightly have to be asked whether it fought the right fight.
However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.

However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.


Friday, 2 May 2014

Where have all the planners gone?

I wrote a piece back in December that was inspired in part by the news that 87% of respondents to a DCS Planning Consultancy Survey agreed that a shortage of planning staff is a major constraint on timely decision-making.

That led me to think about LPA staffing levels across the North West and with the help of my colleague Claire Pegg and a few FOI requests later...
North West LPA Planning Staff 2010-2014
Whilst many authorities have a similar amount of full time equivalent (FTE) posts and some teams are actually larger, based upon the information that we have been able to obtain, it is most striking that there are at least 109 fewer LPA planners now than there were in 2010 (though the reduction in the size of the teams at Manchester and Oldham alone represent 42% of that figure).

With reports that three in five Councils will have exhausted other ways of making savings by the 2015/16 financial year, further reductions in FTE posts should surely be expected. Given that development activity is increasing and that the local plan process continues to get more difficult to navigate, this year's consultancy survey will probably identify a shortage of staff as an even greater constraint.