Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Mystified about the National Planning Framework? Join the club


I admit it. I'm a historian of planning.

Don't click 'back'. Please. I know it's dull. But it's important. Especially now, with Monday's publication of the National Planning Policy Framework that will shape physical land use planning and building for many years to come.

Why? Because the Government is committed to 'supply side reform' to speed up economic growth - and after yesterday's anaemic growth figures, we sure need some sort of boost. This is one of their chosen mechanisms, for both Conservative and Liberal Democrat Ministers think that 'freeing up' the planning system, and allowing more building, is one way of speeding up the progress of the economy. It's another neo-liberal initiative from an extremely neo-liberal government, at least on the economic front. The reasoning? If you let people do what they want, if you let investment capital 'settle' where it may, it's bound to be efficient.

Leave aside the fact that such changes only take effect over a decade or more, as in fact I've argued until I'm blue in the face (my face does get pretty blue these days).

And the fact that it's not at all clear whether more or less restriction on building would be better for economic growth that's got to be increasingly high-tech, top-end, 'green', research-led and low-impact.

The real problem with this document is that it's just so vague.

Sure, there's the usual tussle between National Trust conservationists screaming blue murder about the danger to the countryside and the Green Belt. And builders are licking their lips, ready to rip into chunks of expensive land just beyond the suburbs on which they can shove up loads of boxy starter homes. But that's a pretty stereotypical debate. I could (and will) take you to lots of examples of that argument in 1947, when Labour's first Town and Country Planning Act was passed, or 1953-54, when many of Labour's land taxes were taken off by the Conservatives, or 1965-70, when Labour tried to put them back again and nationalise development rights through a Land Commission.

But there could be lots to cheer or jeer from almost any perspective - even green politics. Who really knows outside of Whitehall? In radically shortening planning guidelines, from many hundreds of pages to just sixty or so, there are so many glosses and hostages to fortune that I don't even know where to start. Local communities are to lose many of the grounds on which they might object to sprawling developments or new houses - but are now going to be able to ask for a so-called 'village green order' to fence off areas they don't want touched at all. The standing policy presumption is now going to be leaning right over to allow building - but only if it's 'sustainable', a term or set of criteria (it's used as both here) that's very windily approached in the draft. I could go on. I probably will.

I can only concur with the Town and Country Planning Association:

While we share the Government's ambition of making planning more accessible to communities, making something shorter does not automatically make it clearer. Planning has to deal with complex problems and sometimes needs detailed policy responses.

If the TCPA isn't clear about what it all means, what hope does anyone else have?

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