Growth and Infrastructure Bill

Memorandum submitted by Neil Blackshaw (GIB 46)

Neil Blackshaw, consultant, Easton Planning. This submission relates solely to clause I of the Bill.

Summary

We may all agree that speeding up planning decisions is a sensible aim but in my view these measures are likely to be damaging to the core principles of the English planning system and democracy, are poorly constructed and may be unworkable and the evidence for their efficacy is too weak on which to base a change in the law.

Submission

1. The proposal amounts to the creation of a parallel planning system. It will create uncertainty and confusion to all parties as tracking the route that planning applications will become a difficult additional task. The link between the local plan and planning decisions has been for the most part central to the functioning of the English system. In the best planning authorities the work streams are integrated and may take the form of development teams. This proposal assumes that it is straightforward to remove the decision making function which is demonstrably incorrect. Democratic accountability and accessibility is a crucial element of the system. When decision-making is removed then the link with the community will be broken and its trust undermined. The measures quite clearly fly in the face of the Localism Agenda and are likely to undermine public trust in the neighbourhood planning process as communities see decision-making removed from their local authority. They will be bound to question whether neighbourhood plans will be give appropriate weight under the proposed procedure. The effective removal of the right of appeal and the consequent radical change in the role of the Secretary of State risks undermining a central feature of the planning system so far.

2. The proposals are not based on a remotely convincing analysis of the perceived failings of the current system but rely on crude and partial statistics and rhetoric. It would have been far more helpful to have examined the reasons for and the precise nature of the under performance. One key issue that these measures will not address for instance, is the continuing failure of planning authorities to achieve an adopted plan. It seems that there is currently no database of development plan progress but estimates suggest that in April 2012 only 43% of planning authorities had an adopted high-level plan. Given the plan-led nature of the system this must be one significant reason for protracted decision making. A key feature of the plan-led system is a high degree of certainty. Without that it is clear that decision-making cannot be as efficient as it should be. The overall decision- making process comprises many steps and procedures and many stakeholders. Local authorities clearly differ in the resources they devote to it, financial, managerial and political. An alternative to this indirect blunt instrument would have been to encourage best practice but at the same time to increase incentives and sanctions. No organisation is in fact scrutinizing local authority planning departments. For instance, the local government ombudsman is effectively barred from investigating complaints from applicants as distinct from 3rd parties on the grounds that the appeals system provides sufficient remedy. As failings in administration, inefficiency and delays are not matters that Planning Inspectors can take into account this is clearly a major gap in accountability. At the same time, the fact that a simplistic time limits – 8 weeks, 13 weeks whatever have been shown repeatedly to be too crude. Those authorities that take care but a little more time produce the best results and greatest satisfaction all round.

3. The Impact Statement falls far short of being a convincing assessment of the likely outcome. The document fails to evaluate the capacity of PINS to deal with the additional work and simply assumes that it will be more efficient. The added transaction costs – transferring data necessary to enable PINS to act in place of the local authority alone will impose significant cost and time burdens. The local authority will also still retain an administrative burden. The hapless local authority is assumed to react to this in a positive way but it can easily be argued that the effect will be the opposite – demoralizing staff and undermining political and community support. The Impact Statement suggests that as there are currently no local authorities transgressing the trigger for overturned decisions the measures will not in practice be required but will have the effect of concentrating minds. This seems quite absurd – creating a paper tiger for purely rhetorical reasons.

4. There probably is a good case for bearing down on local authorities that are under-performing in their planning function but to be effective and positive the intervention should be across the board and seek to address the real causes of delay and inefficiency.

November 2012

Prepared 1st December 2012