Keep your Clause out of local planning matters, Mr Pickles

Bill McKenzieAs Lords scrutiny begins on a proposed new planning regime, Bill McKenzie highlights the government’s u-turn away from localism 

The first clause of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill encapsulates the Cameron government’s continued attack on localism and a greater emphasis on centralisation of decision-making powers. The clause, which will be debated in the Lords today, gives the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government the power to strip local planning authorities of their ability to decide planning applications if he (currently Eric Pickles) deems the authority to be ‘failing.’ It is a profoundly anti-localist measure – and one that Labour strongly opposes. 

Clause 1 will negate one of the founding principles of the 1947 English Planning System and, if passed, will result in the elimination of the substantive right to have a local planning decision taken by a democratically elected local authority. The measure will enable developers in designated authority areas to have their applications decided by the Secretary of State, or a person appointed by him, without ever being reviewed by the local council. To compound the damage further, the Secretary of State’s decision would be final with no right of appeal. 

The Bill provides no definition of what may constitute a failing local authority. Nor does Clause 1 state that the councils it targets will be restricted to those that are failing. 

What we see with this clause is the Cameron government attempting to further shift power from local planning authorities to central government. Ministers are recklessly focusing on the speed of decision-making to the detriment of the quality of planning decisions. Of significant concern is the fact that the powers governing designation are far in excess of the government’s stated intent – something the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee has recognised. 

There is no conceivable justification for the proposals. Clause 1 appears to be weakly predicated on the proposition that delays in the planning system are holding back growth. But there is no valid evidence for this ill-conceived assumption: the spurious link between the time to decide applications and the creation of economic growth is anecdotal at best. 

As it happens, 2012 saw councils approve 87% of all planning applications – a ten year high and a powerful indication that the planning system is not the root cause of the housing crisis. Is it any wonder that the Local Government Association have branded Clause 1 “without justification”, while the Campaign to Protect Rural England states it “marks a dramatic shift away from the Government’s commitment to localism”? 

By causing considerable upheaval and uncertainty in the planning system, the government’s proposals will do nothing to help create growth or promote confidence – especially for already struggling local planning authorities. 

If Clause 1 goes through, some councils may feel pressurised to opt for speed rather than quality in their decision-making, with the result that communities lose trust in the planning system. Others meanwhile, could fall into a spiral of decline, as their planning fees are diverted away from them and they lose both their engagement with key developers and their own senior staff. In short, the clause is an anti-localist measure that has nothing to do with supporting the improvement of councils and much to do with undermining them. 

Lord Bill McKenzie of Luton is Shadow Minister for Communities and Local Government in the Lords

Published 22 January 2013   


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