Better, faster plan-making in England

As a member of the public and occasional “customer” of the planning system, I welcome the draft National Planning Policy Framework from the Practitioners Advisory Group. It shows that concise (and sufficiently comprehensive) policy guidance is possible at the national level. There is a need for some fine-tuning but it generally sums up a coherent national position at an appropriate level of detail. Previous efforts by DCLG and its predecessor departments have failed to achieve this. The PAG is also correct that advising on good practice is not a role for government. Eric Pickles and Greg Clark were right to call for a bonfire of gratuitous advice and overly prescriptive guidance, even if they were wrong in assigning the blame for a clogged up system on planners rather than on Whitehall and Westminster. Going outside of DCLG to a small group who between them represent a wide range of interests was a very good idea.

The PAG team also makes recommendations about simplifying plan-making. This is desperately needed. The LDF system may not have been designed by the soon to be late and unlamented Audit Commission but it might as well have been! The system developed under New Labour is so process-driven that it ignores purpose. The level of central interference in such matters as public consultation is totally inappropriate. The proof of its failings lies in the time taken to get plans actually in place and the procedural problems that are being encountered by some authorities. I welcome the PAG idea that there should normally be only one, concise Local Plan document and that supplementary planning documents should be the exception rather than the rule. This should help get plans prepared and approved in a timely manner. They can then be reviewed and revised in a timely manner too. This sort of process should benefit the public, developers and planners alike.

However, there are barriers to delivering clear, concise and timely plans. History shows that this goal has consistently eluded us. The 1947 Act’s development plan and town map system became bogged down and out of date very quickly. The structure and local plan system introduced to replace it fell into disrepute for similar reasons. While it is difficult to credit, the LDF system may also have been invented as an attempt at increased efficiency.

The two major barriers are fear of legal challenge and creeping bureaucracy. Pickles and Clark have a role in dealing with both.

The legal framework needs to be such that plans can be produced efficiently. Exceptionally good legal drafting is needed. There has to be scope for discretion at a local level about plan content and about the plan-making process. Overly detailed procedural rules in primary or secondary legislation do not help achieve this. Eric Pickles has had a few problems with planning law but if he can solve this one he will redeem himself.

The other potential barrier is bureaucratic mission creep. This is endemic in Whitehall. I have lost count of the number of “freedoms” that have been given to local government – not just in planning but in other areas like funding regimes too – only to be followed by tighter restrictions than existed before. Again, it is up to Eric Pickles to keep the civil servants under control.

Kim Penfold
26 May 2011