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Richard Blyth: Mr Gove aims to get planning back on its feet

Richard Blyth is Head of Policy Practice and Research at the RTPI. Richard breaks down his views on yesterday’s announcements from Michael Gove.

The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Michael Gove, took to his feet on Tuesday 19 December to launch the new NPPF, almost exactly a year to the day that consultation on the framework was launched. Alongside the new framework he outlined a raft of measures that he said he hopes will accelerate house building in a way to emulate the Victorians.

The RTPI has responded to his speech and my colleagues will be writing in more detail about the NPPF. However, it is probably worth highlighting the other measures that the Secretary of State discussed.

One of the stand-out themes of his speech, which the RTPI would support, was the emphasis he placed on local plans. Waiting for the NPPF changes has been accused of putting a pause on local plan making so it is rewarding to hear such an endorsement for them from the top.

The debate about “planning performance” has been running for a long time. It can at times seem intractable. The RTPI considers that the overall performance of planning is really best assessed through measuring planning outcomes, such as sufficient and decent homes for all, air quality, access to schools and ease of movement. We note that Mr Gove also referred to some of these wider issues which the planning system should be delivering, for example, sufficient social infrastructure. It is important at the end of the day to remember that if the system works very smoothly but doesn’t deliver the underlying changes to quality of life, that is only a success on paper.

Resourcing for local planning authorities has been a key ask for the RTPI for many years. An ask, which seems to be being answered in a way. The Planning Skills Delivery Fund, which RTPI promoted, has been well subscribed, and the increase in planning fees which were announced by the Chancellor are to be welcomed.

Mr Gove said in very strong terms that he would expect such fee increases to be spent on planning services. He also said it would translate into an increase in planning income. But that will depend on external factors. On previous occasions when fees have risen this has not necessarily led to an increase in income because the makeup of planning applications needs to remain unchanged for this to happen.

 If there are more smaller applications and fewer large ones, especially if there are more “householder” applications, the LPA may end up in a net worse position. The current fee increases still do not make the planning application process self-funding and do not cover the costs of plan making – an activity given due prominence in Mr Gove’s speech.

It stands to reason that applicants for planning permission wish to see value for their money. For many years the Government has collected statistics on the speed of determination of planning applications. However, these can be somewhat misleading, because, for example, LPAs and applicants can agree to extensions of time. The Government proposes to produce statistics in the future which provide a clearer indication of the real time taken for planning applications to be determined. If this data is an accurate reflection of reality and is adopted sufficiently then it could be hugely useful, but as ever the devil is in the detail, or the data in this instance.

Mr Gove was clear in his speech that he believes the work of planners is ‘critical’ but often undervalued.

All of us in the planning profession are aware there are many factors that impinge on the speed of planning applications, including applicants themselves. Many would agree that the input of statutory consultees, many of which are the Government’s own agencies, can seriously delay planning decisions. The Government says consultees may issue holding directions which can mask the real situation and give the impression of faster performance than is the case.

Mr Gove is commissioning a review of the work of statutory consultees, which he said would include considering whether their advice could be ignored if it arrives late. In our latest response to the current Competition and Markets Authority housebuilding market study, we cautioned against rushing too hastily into this issue. There is a risk this might end up putting future developments into, for example, either increased flood risk or, more likely, simply mean permissions are just refused because flood mitigation measures are not brought forward. Such a review should surely also look into how these agencies are resourced since it is likely that a shortage of funding is behind their performance.

Mr Gove was clear in his speech that he believes the work of planners is ‘critical’ but often undervalued.

A planning decision, however speedily reached, is not necessarily a planning permission. A proportion of decisions are refusals. A proportion of refusals are contrary to officers’ recommendations. The Government proposes to investigate the extent to which LPA officers’ recommendations are overturned by planning committees and to report on the results. It is important that planners working in local authorities work to the highest standards, and those who are members of the RTPI must conform to a code of conduct.

One little-used but long-standing option to assist with the planning task locally is for LPAs to make Local Development Orders. These grant overall permission for an area under specific guidelines, for example on design. The UK Treasury allocated £5 million in November 2023 to assist this process – which can be costly up-front – and it will be interesting to observe the success of the cases that receive the support. Could the use of LDOs increase? And can this be proven to generate downstream savings?

Yesterday Mr Gove referred not only to the NPPF changes but addressed himself to the wider environment in which the planning system operates and without which policy change will fail. The key to all the measures introduced this week is that they are well understood and clearly communicated so the whole planning system is working together for the common goal of delivering the places that communities around the country deserve.

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