Richard Blyth is the Head of Policy Practice and Research at the RTPI
Whatever decisions a future leader of the government may take, this week MPs are still considering the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill which is currently making its passage through parliament and undergoing political scrutiny. One unexpected and controversial element in this Bill is the proposal that, breaking with 70 years of law and practice, the Government should issue its own planning policies to be used to make planning decisions by local authorities in England. These are to be called National Development Management Policies .
Currently, planning decisions are made in accordance with the local plan, unless material considerations (which can include government policy) indicate otherwise. So the benefit of doubt as it were (lawyers please look away here!) rests with the local plan. In the Government’s proposal, not only would its own policies be added to those of the local plan in a position of parity, but in the event of any conflict between them, the Government’s policies would legally take precedence.
The Government says this is in order to make it quicker to produce local plans, because it won’t be necessary to reproduce national policy locally. Goodness knows faster local plans would be a great achievement, although whether having a lot of development management policies in local plans is the principal reason for plan delay is not clear.
This streamlining has been tried twice before: the regional spatial strategies introduced by the Planning and Compensation Act 2004 included statutory planning policies theoretically removing the need for reproduction in local plans. And the Planning Act 1968 introduced county Structure Plans which were to include all the development management policies, with local plans only covering more area- and site-specific issues. However in both cases district councils were very keen to write their own policies and it is difficult to see how this can be prevented.
It is possible to see advantages in a single set of national policies where currently local plans have policies on the same topic which differ slightly. However, the introduction of national policies could also lead to the stifling of innovation. Currently it is open to a local authority to forge ahead with new ideas around climate action for example, as Merton Council did on climate some time ago now. If the national policies are in force it would be hard to argue why a particular place justified this from its character alone.
Naturally a lot will depend on what the Government decides is within the compass of national policies. However the RTPI is sufficiently concerned about this development to be seeking amendments to the Bill currently in Committee in the House of Commons. Our amendments would:
- Require Parliament to debate and approve national policies
- Require the Government to consult the public on National policies
- Exempt areas which go for wide ranging devolution from the “primacy” of national policies
After considerable unrest in government last week, the Committee are expected to begin the delayed line-by-line scrutiny of this section of the Bill on Tuesday 12th July. The RTPI will continue to engage constructively with Government and the Bill as it makes its way through Parliament. Sessions are open to the public gallery and in this day and age, that means you can listen in on House of Commons’ Parliament Live TV channel here: https://www.parliamentlive.tv/Commons