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Planning under attack at Lib Dem conference

September 19, 2011

Alexander: planning system a 'major vested interest' (picture by bobaliciouslondon. Flickr)

Party conference season has begun and I’m in Birmingham to cover the Liberal Democrat party conference. I’ve barely been here for 24 hours, but have already heard several speakers – including senior politicians, developers and think-tank chiefs – lash out the planning system. Danny Alexander, the chief secretary to the Treasury, set the tone by using part of his speech on Sunday to hit out at the planning system, which he said is a “major vested interest” standing in the way of economic growth. “Bureaucracy, rules and red tape that mean it takes years to get things done,” Alexander told the conference. “A planning system that can take more than a decade to allow even modest developments to go forward,” he added.

Later on the same day, Ed Davey, the Lib Dem MP for Kingston & Surbiton and minister for employment relations, consumer and postal affairs, ramped up the rhetoric by telling an evening fringe meeting organised by think-tanks Centre Forum and Policy Exchange that the planning system “is completely out of control”. He said: “The idea that the planning system currently is some sort of fantastic creation is just a nonsense. The planning system is completely out of control in my view.” He added: “The planning system we inherited is a disaster and desperately needs reform.”

But perhaps the most pointed criticism so far came from Gary Day, planning director at McCarthy and Stone, the UK’s largest builder of private retirement homes and flats. He told a fringe meeting organised by the Town and Country Planning Association that “around two-thirds of my company’s planning applications have historically been refused first time by local authorities”. Day added: “My company provides around 70 per cent of all specialist housing for owner-occupiers in this country, so if we’re not delivering because we’re having problems with the planning system, who is?” Then, to cries of “rubbish” from conference delegates, he said: “My impression over the last ten years has been that most planning officers, when a planning application lands on their desk, it seems to be they are saying to themselves, ‘what can I refuse this for’.”

The fringe meeting organised by Centre Forum and Policy Exchange also saw a spiky exchange between Neil Sinden, policy director at countryside group the Campaign to Protect Rural England, and Policy Exchange director Neil O’Brien. Speaking from the floor, Sinden – whose campaign group has been one of the most vocal critics of the government’s proposed planning reforms – disputed claims that the planning system was a barrier to delivering new homes. “Frankly, the idea that the planning system is an obstacle to delivering those houses is a nonsense,” he said “There’s a big debate to be had about this, but of course we know the housing market has ground to a halt because of a lack of mortgage finance and the inability to meet their housing needs through the market. It’s nothing to do with planning.”

But O’Brien responded: “It’s not all about supply of credit. This idea that there’s no connection between the amount of something and the price of it is just to not understand anything about economics. You will the ends, but you don’t will the means. You are talking out of both sides of your mouth.”

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Evan Owen permalink
    September 19, 2011 11:14 am

    YAY, music to the ears of those outside the RTPI Mafia

  2. September 19, 2011 11:37 am

    “Bureaucracy, rules and red tape that mean it takes years to get things done,” Alexander told the conference. “A planning system that can take more than a decade to allow even modest developments to go forward,” he added.

    This reminds me of the following parliamentary question, “Is the Minister aware that planning procedures make building a bungalow in the Twentieth Century slower than building a cathedral in the Twelfth Century?”

    Author of the question? Mr James Hacker MP, indeed “Yes, Minister” vintage 1981.Thirty years later politicians are spouting the same thing. If bureaucracy, rules and red tape cause delays it’s the Government (of whatever party) who write the rules and thus cause the delays, although European directives do not help. Perhaps that’s the next thing; blame Brussels.

    • Evan Owen permalink
      September 19, 2011 11:44 am

      Accepted, but when the ‘rules’ are interpreted by the myopic planners we are in the proverbial world of hurt so the fewer things they can use to refuse development the better.

      • Tom permalink
        September 19, 2011 2:06 pm

        You do know that an overwhelming majority of planning permissions are granted don’t you? And that of those that are refused and appealed a majority of appeals are won?

        Those ‘rules’ are there for a reason. Do you want housing on teh flood plains? how about houses built on areas of subsidence which will collapse after a few years? New quarry resulting in 50 heavy lorrys travelling through that single lane village all hours of the day?

        I’m not saying that the planning system cant be improved, but its not the problem its made out to be. Its generally only a delay on the big schemes, and I mean the really big ones, where the decisions are in effect political and not planning issues.

        I dont think it unreasonable to expect decisions which have profound effects on people’s lives, the economy, education, and the environment to be made with due consideration and based on evidence.

        Evan – Would you like to state which ‘rules’ you object to? and how planners are being myopic.

  3. Duncan permalink
    September 19, 2011 12:53 pm

    “around two-thirds of my company’s planning applications have historically been refused first time by local authorities”. Not a very clever developer, I suspect.

  4. Planner permalink
    September 19, 2011 1:01 pm

    I do wonder if any of these MPs have ever spoken to their constituents?

  5. Whelk permalink
    September 19, 2011 1:55 pm

    Does it never occur that the reason some developments take so long to get through planning is that they are bloody awful and should never be built?

    Perhaps what we really need is a tightening of planning powers to ensure that a refusal to a planning permission is harder to argue with?

  6. Tom permalink
    September 19, 2011 2:12 pm

    I love the comments from Gary Day. As a planning officer I dread applications from big developers landing on my desk. They invariably are of incredibly poor quality. They have appalling plans which have clearly been drawn up to confuse members of the public, they never include the appropriate surveys and reports which the developer knows will be required, they never follow policies such as levels and distribution of affordably housing. And design quality is always very low.

    I get the impression that they submit applications of intentionally abysmal quality in an attempt to make it seam reasonable that the 2nd submission, which is merely bad as opposed to appalling, should be granted as its an improvement on the first.

    Here’s an idea Greg, submit a decent application the first time and maybe it would be approved. No planning officer likes refusing applications, if for no other reason its more work to do so and then fight the inevitable appeal.

    • SCH permalink
      September 19, 2011 2:36 pm

      This was exactly my thought on reading the rather studied rantings of said developer. Back in the day, when I did DC (many years ago now, it’s true), it was tacitly understood to be part of “the game” that a developer – or even an agent acting for a private individual – would submit something that they knew would not get permission, on the basis that a resubmission (for no cost) would achieve what the client / developer wanted in the first place, while preserving a facade of reasonableness based on their willingness to negotiate. I’m not saying this was right – of course it wasn’t, and it probably led to a lot of the historic delays being used to belabour the profession with now – but it’s a bit rich of certain elements of the private development industry to adopt this “poor me and my long delayed planning proposals” when they have contributed to the problem.

  7. Jason Cundy permalink
    September 19, 2011 2:31 pm

    A simpler planning system, less red tape etc is something all planners want, but what they also want is a balanced approach. The document at present isn’t balanced, its very easy to call many of the protestors NIMBYS but the problem with the policy go’s far far beyond this. Opening up greenfield development to the scale that could be seen here will allow easier development in the attractive rural and semi rural areas of a number of places whilst absolutely killing any potential brownfield development in the more deprived, often inner city areas.

    People are fighting this for different reasons, but the government are severely underestimating the power and ferocity of those who are seeking to reform the NPPF and I suspect if they railroad it through they will pay the price.

  8. abarker permalink
    September 19, 2011 3:01 pm

    James I was at the fringe meeting that RSL boss new his stuff, if housing associations cannot build then the NPPF is a myth strange how Andrew did not answer the question nor the others Strange why you have not mention this.


  9. September 19, 2011 3:58 pm

    I’m not a planning officer, but a solicitor who spent many years in local authorities. My view is that large developers submit “standard” proposals which pay little if any attention to the specific site (in terms of design, etc.); it being cheaper to use the “here’s one I made earlier” method.

    Of course, it doesn’t just apply to houses, and one Aldi or Lidl (for example) looks much the same as any other.

  10. Peter Smith permalink
    September 19, 2011 6:52 pm

    Can Danny Alexander provide an example of an application that falls (his words) into the following category?

    “A planning system that can take more than a decade to allow even modest developments to go forward,”

    • andy permalink
      September 20, 2011 2:43 pm

      Thats something that starting to wind me up now. All these politicians keep talking of developments that take years to get through the planning system. Exactly what developments are we talking about? Ones that have been called in by the SoS? Or maybe one that have gone to committee with a positive recommendadtion and then been overturned by Members, with a local election looming, resulting in a needless appeal.

      Then they refer to the ‘fact’ that the lack of speed in the system prohibits investment. I cant believe any serious investor would choose not to develop a project because planning permission takes longer than they expect. In my experience (and ive worked in the public and private sectors), planning is just a small cog in the development wheel.

  11. notanotherplanner permalink
    September 20, 2011 8:55 am

    “planning isn’t brain surgery” no Andrew, it isn’t…not many things are brain surgery, other than brain surgery. Certainly being a former architect and low ranking minister trying to get his name in the papers is not brain surgery. But as you say, the problem is we’ve made planning ‘so professional’ in the last 60 years…and that’s a bad thing, having people who are trained to do things…Whatever next.

    • Pickles' Onion permalink
      September 20, 2011 12:44 pm

      Of course, before planning was a profession, it was an art that was included in the Olympics… is it too late to get it included next year’s schedule and, whilst I’m writing, does anyone have any idea of what the qualifying standard might be?

    • September 20, 2011 1:51 pm

      Well it accords with localism i.e. Joe Bloggs knows better than the professionals. Perhaps this could be the start of something truly radical. How about giving unqualified people a “manual” and let them start actually doing brain surgery thus saving the NHS lots of money, or, as was the case when I was at secondary modern school let P.E. teachers with the intellectual capacity of a peanut teach proper subjects, after all they only have to be one chapter ahead in the text book. Or, perhaps one for the minister, let primary school children with a box of crayons design buildings, after all, it’s not rocket science.

      Not being a planner (solicitor as it happens) I don’t have a “vested interest”, but unfortunately if the RTPI were to respond that is exactly the label that would be applied.


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