Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Taking the local out of local plans

Who remembers 'Open Source Planning'? A Conservative Party pre-election Green Party that lamented a 'broken' planning system, rejected any 'piecemeal' reform, and attempted a 'radical reboot' of the Labour government's 'centralising, corporatist attitiude'.

 "The creation of an Open Source planning system means that local people in each neighbourhood – a term we use to include villages, towns, estates, wards or other relevant local areas – will be able to specify what kind of development and use of land they want to see in their area. This will lead to a fundamental and long overdue rebalancing of power, away from the centre and back into the hands of local people. Whole layers of bureaucracy, delay and centralised micro-management will disappear as planning shifts away from being an issue principally for “insiders” to one where communities take the lead in shaping their own surroundings."

Doesn't that sound nice...

Can you believe, good readers, that Open Source Planning is over five years old (where does the time go, etc...) and the reason it came to mind was because the influential Conservative-supporting website Conservative Home (ConHome) has published it's own manifesto for housing.

Helpfully for those who would not wish to see 'environmental protections, economic stability and local democracy crushed beneath a development juggernaut', ConHome 'rejects the notion that the only solution to the housing crisis is a planning free-for-all'. Rather, it proposes, 'a pro-active planning system based on detailed local plans and community plans drawn up with the full participation of local residents...' So far so good... 'and subject to their final approval through a local referendum...' Oh.

It is almost as if the last five years have not happened. Has nobody spotted what happens when communities are put 'in control' of development? Research from Turley in 2014 concluded that over half (55%) of all neighbourhood plans seek primarily to resist new development, with that number increasing to 63 per cent in rural areas. Has nobody spotted what happens when councils are put in control of housing targets? Research from Nathanial Lichfield & Partners ('Signal Failure', March 2015) has concluded that of 62 local plans found sound following the introduction of the NPPF in March 2012, a third require an early review to assess issues of housing needs and supply. Of the 43 plans currently being considered, 14 have been put on hold, requiring modifications relating to housing numbers.

Given that local plan coverage remains so poor it is unsurprising that ConHome see the planning process as 'back-to-front'. 'It starts off with developers deciding what to build, and then councils and local residents deciding what they want to object to'. This is not, of course, how a plan-led system should operate, but not only does ConHome want to treat the symptom (not having local plans) and not the cause (having local plans), it does so based upon an inaccurate diagnosis. Instead of acknowledging the role of 'top-down targets' in creating 'a building boom of sorts from 2001 to 2007', they (the Regional Spatial Strategies) are dismissed for 'forcing development through the system' and setting off a 'feeding frenzy that pumped cheap credit into property investments'.

It would be a great surprise if the Conservative manifesto on housing and planning deviated from the ConHome school of thought, which believes that localism is the key to getting more homes built. At some point though it will need to be recognised that this will not result in universal local plan coverage and, consequently, a supply of land sufficient to accommodate the need for new homes. Putting local plans and communities in control of specific sites, the design of development, and the spending of planning gain, which ConHome does advovate, is and can only be a good thing, but as far as how much development and where is concerned, we need a planning process that starts with what a community needs and not what it wants, and that means taking decisions at a higher than local level. Something like, a Regional Spatial Strategy, for example, or even a Structure Plan...

As I have written here previously, brave policy solutions are good, but a politician brave enough to swim against the tide of localism in planning would be better.