The current system of obtaining planning permission in the UK is sclerotic. Local and special interest groups have too much capacity to object in ways that frustrate the achievement of key national goals. It is especially unsatisfactory since planning often becomes an excuse for time-wasting. If there is sufficient political will, and sufficient time, local considerations will be overruled.
The Government therefore deserves praise for proposing reform, as it did yesterday with a White Paper. The measures outlined represent an intelligent and comprehensive attempt to tackle a diverse and complicated set of issues.
The issues are so diverse that not one but four government ministers – spanning local government, environment, transport and trade and industry portfolios – are signatories. At one end of the spectrum planning reform must enable the more speedy completion of a large number of small projects, such as new housebuilding. Many assume that house prices can and should be controlled through changes in interest rates. But the problems of access to housing caused by rising property prices can only be tackled effectively by allowing the supply of houses and flats to increase. In England alone, new households are being formed at the rate of about 230,000 a year, while new dwellings are built at 167,000 a year.
Elsewhere the planning process must allow the speedier construction of a small number of large projects, such as power stations, airports and roads. If Britain is to enjoy economic prosperity it must be equipped with adequate infrastructure.
The White Paper soundly recognises that different kinds of planning applications require different treatment. In some circumstances home-owners could pursue non-controversial projects, such as the building of garages and small extensions, without special permission. Sensibly enough, the White Paper also seeks to impose limitations on the scope of large planning inquiries. Under the current regime a public inquiry into, say, the construction of a nuclear power station could include examination of whether the UK requires nuclear energy; and, if it does, what type of technology should be deployed. These are matters to be decided centrally, with reference to the needs and preferences of the country as a whole. The risk that we will run short of energy is so acute that we cannot afford a system that mires plans for the next generation of nuclear power stations for another generation.
The independent planning commission, founded if the White Paper proposals become law, will help the planning process. But there is also a risk that the new regime will allow national interests to ride roughshod over local ones. The Government makes reassuring noises about safeguarding local and special interests by, for instance, obliging developers to consult the public. But consultations can be ignored. At the same time, the new commission may be insufficiently accountable to national government. It would be counter-productive to burden ministers with too much responsibility. It is one reason why the current system is afflicted by delays. But the commission may need greater linkage with the political process if it is to operate with legitimacy.
The effectiveness of local consultation will be tested in no uncertain terms if, as is likely, supermarket chains find it easier to open new superstores. Simple moves, such as encouraging an increase in staff numbers in local planning offices, may also be as effective as the wholesale reinvention of planning institutions.
“The Times” leading article 22.5.07