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Is economic recovery threatened by cuts to planning?

22 April 2015

Peter Kuit, MRTPI

A couple of weeks to go and the real fun will start. Will we have another coalition government or will one of the larger parties squeeze past the post? Today the air is thick with statistics, pushed out with force but what is the true position?

As a retired local government planner I’m pretty sure that things have got a lot worse at the coal face of planning because of the significant cuts in government grant. But how bad is it? Is it so bad that there will be long-term damage done? Is the balance between public and private sector planners seriously out of kilter? Is economic recovery threatened by the lack of a strong, responsive and well-structured statutory planning input? Above all, if all in the planning garden is not rosy then what can be done about it?

My own experience working in five local authorities in England’s North West region since 1970 suggests that the quality and depth of the planning service can vary significantly. This of course can reflect the great geographic variation of the region, with its large conurbations and sparsely populated, often remote settlements. Likewise the ‘political value’ attached to the planning service varies hugely. It's not surprising that, for want of a better general term, ‘local development pressure’ reflects these complex patterns. Yet all are subject to the same government policy and are expected to ‘perform’ to a uniform high standard.

If we are to influence decision-makers then we need some good quality hard evidence. After all, this is what we demand of developers when they come forward with their proposals.

I'm not alone in thinking the North West region offers the ideal 'laboratory' to try and gather evidence showing what is actually happening to planning services out there. The RTPI's North West Region Regional Activities Committee (RAC) is about to commission a major research project involving all of the local planning authorities and a significant section of the private consultancy market, as well as a sample of developers. The study aims to find out what level of planning resource is actually available and how this compares with past experience. It's clearly not enough for people like me to ‘guess’ that things must be pretty bad by now. If we are to influence decision-makers then we need some good quality hard evidence. After all, this is what we demand of developers when they come forward with their proposals.

The RAC is just about to interview suitable research partners and expects the all important survey work to begin shortly after. I do hope the respective ‘Chief Planners’ in each local planning authority engage fully with this exercise so that we can get a good response rate. Hopefully this part of the project will give us an excellent foundation from which to explore the best ways to improve things.

Naturally I have my own ideas about what might be done to re-energise planning services. These include more joint working between neighbouring authorities. I actively pursued this during my time working in Central Lancashire and feel that there may well be a great deal of fertile working to be had elsewhere. Something also needs to be done about the setting of planning application fees so that they more accurately reflect the ‘true cost’ of the development management process.

Coming full circle back to the general election, so far the term 'planning' has been largely absent from debate. Not so housing. With another hat on I serve as a volunteer independent board member for a local housing association. I chair the Development Committee and so am able to draw to an extent on my planning background to help progress new build in particular.

Although politicians currently appear not to be able to agree on just how many new houses we actually need, I’m convinced that it is at least two or three times the amount we are currently building. I believe planners have a very significant role in helping us to meet our housing needs. For example, they often ‘enable’ local politicians to take the longer view and to make difficult decisions about where new homes should be built. They can also ‘enable’ developers who might otherwise go elsewhere to see the wider merits of a particular location.

My feeling is that whoever wins the election will have to make up for lost time and really give housing a high priority. This will, in my view, automatically involve ‘the planners’ and our North West study will hopefully be available to show whether the planners are ready to take up the challenge - and if not, what can be done to make sure they are with the least amount of delay.

Peter Kuit, MRTPI

Peter is a member of the North West Region RAC and the project steering group for this research project.