There is a part of me that is looking forward to the day, which is not too far off, when I’m going to have lots more shelf space in the office. Out will go the 10ft length of Planning Policy Statements and the even older Planning Policy Guidance notes and in their place will come a slim volume, just ½ an inch thick (or 15mm for the converted amongst you). Some of the old PPG’s I doubt have ever been opened by the team – at least not since they were bound up to have as an essential reference tool for the practice. I’m sure we will manage without them.
The new guidance is causing major rifts to open up within the profession. The invitation to comment is being taken as an opportunity to lambast those within the profession who hold a different view. One national journalist, presumably writing with a certain amount of his tongue stuck firmly in his cheek, has accused the new guidance as leading inevitably to new bungalows being built upon the white cliffs of Dover. Others have talked about there still being so much short-termism, nimbyism and delay that not a lot will happen as a result.
Generally those supporting the new framework have been slightly more measured in their support than the opponents. The latter have likened the reforms to the debacle over student loans and sale of the forestry commission. One leading pundit has even gone so far as to write that “Planning will no longer serve the interests of the public or the environment!”
Personally I find these words and attitudes extreme and unhelpful. Trying to find words of comfort to assist an out of centre proposal one of my clients wishes to take forward, I struggled to find any seismic shift in core guidance. Others have pointed out that concepts such as Green Belts remain firmly untouched. On the whole, when studied carefully I don’t think that it represents the end of planning as we know it.
What it is trying to do is to change attitudes and approaches, particularly in planning offices up and down the country. Those who simply act as conduits for feedback on development proposals will have to apply their critical thinking they were trained for. They need try to problem solve and find solutions to issues–not to simply reject a proposal because they have received an adverse view.
Like it or not the country needs new development; people don’t live in allocations the last time I checked, they live in houses actually built. If they are not being built, something needs to be done. Perhaps the presumption in favour will help to address this. I do hope so.
What is clear is that over the last 5 years, under the guise of modernising and improving the system, we have ended up with a complex and burdensome approach. Our policies have become mired in complex and bewildering arays of documents of various stages of completion. Our planning applications require so many documents and investigations to underpin them, many of which simply to prove a negative, that good schemes aren’t coming forward because there is too much cost and risk involved. Those applications that do make it through the validation process seem to face universal claims for financial contributions as Councils attempt to fill depleted coffers and officers think that developers are still cash cows to be milked whenever the opportunity arises.
We do need to return to basics and Sir Peter Hall does well to remind us that all we are doing is to return to the system as it was set up in 1947. I do hope that opponents of the reforms will in the remaining time available, focus more on the adjustments required to get the new system to work. Its not free of errors and areas for improvement, but the danger we face is that the current focus on extreme interpretations will result in a lack of attention to detail and the guidance comes in without the final polish it could be given.