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News Release


Is our planning system too democratic?

asks JLL's planning director, Peter Leaver

BIRMINGHAM, 23rd April, 2015 - President Charles de Gaulle once famously said:- “You do not consult the frogs when you drain the marshes!” This is an unfortunate statement in many respects, particularly the stereotypical reference to the French.  However, it does show how different the French were, and are, in terms of involving politics in planning, whether it concerns infrastructure or other forms of built development.   The ambition and drive of the French in building their high speed TGV rail network contrasts with the much more belated and modest attempts of this country to update the UK’s creaking rail network.

The UK’s planning system is about policy, process and politics.   It is the latter, particularly in an Election year, that has recently come to the forefront.   For this reason, it was the theme to the recent annual Midlands Planning Conference held in Nottingham, jointly hosted by No.5 Chambers and JLL.  Here, it was agreed that planning has become a much greater political issue both nationally and locally, and vice versa.

Nationally, there is a now a well-recognised housing shortage. This has led to house prices that are no longer affordable to many.   Despite the Government’s best efforts with a number of incentives, there is now a structural imbalance between demand and supply.  The level of homes being consented, let alone built, is significantly lower than that required.

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was brought in by the Coalition Government in March 2012.   Its remit was unashamedly pro-development and was intended to get the construction sector back on its feet.  It was also clever enough to purport to uphold conservation interests (such as keeping the normal presumption to retain the Green Belt) but provide developers and house builders with the tools (objectively assessed need and five year land supply) to drive through housing proposals in areas that would not necessarily welcome development.

There is a general consensus that the NPPF has been a force for good and has improved the number and quality of sites coming forward.   Moreover, it is clear from the response of the Government to a recent report from the Local Government and Communities Select Committee that the NPPF it is here to stay.

However, even with this significantly improved policy framework, the level of development being permitted is still significantly less than required.   As such, a much more radical response is required to close the gap.

All parties, with the obvious exception of UKIP realises this.   But, there seems no clear political path how to achieve it.  Why? Because, there are not enough votes in it, particularly in the marginal seats in the shires which will have to absorb much of the extra growth.

There is a clear distinction between the haves – the home owners – and the have nots – all the rest.   In the UK, the value of your house, as an asset, is significantly and relatively greater than almost anywhere else in the world.   This increases the determination of house owners to do anything to protect the value of their house.   In addition, many home owners have lost sight of the benefits that new development can bring in terms of better local infrastructure, amenity and sustainability.   There is an irony that it is often the same people who lament the loss of a post office, bus service or pub in a village who object against new development.

Until a tipping point is reached with the housing crisis, this structural fault will remain.   This is one of the reasons that building in the Green Belt is still such a taboo.

Locally, the position with Birmingham reflects the national picture.   The need for both housing and employment land far outstrips supply.   This has been recognised in the draft Birmingham Development Plan and has led to a proposed release of the Green Belt east of Sutton Coldfield and at Peddimore.   However, these releases only scratch the surface, particularly in respect of meeting housing need.   This has resulted in a contorted and unresolved position with Birmingham having to rely on its neighbours to provide for much of its development needs. Resolution of this issue will require real political leadership.   Moreover, it will involve political leaders in the Black Country, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire.   The success, or otherwise, will depend on all parties considering the benefits to the wider city region first beyond local or parochial interests.

In doing so, the Government will be watching very closely.   How well the various leaders work together will determine the level of financial support given and the power ceded by central Government.   The North West region, which functions much more coherently as a city region, based in Manchester, is already benefiting because of the collegiate approach taken.

This is clearly an area where politics and planning are inextricably linked.  Indeed, politics has to play an essential role in determining planning policy.   However, there is an increasing movement amongst the development and construction industry against politics being involved in decision taking on individual planning applications.   The greatest source of frustration for any developer or house builder is for a carefully crafted planning application to be refused by lay members of a planning committee having been recommended for approval by professional planning officers.   For these reasons, a system where all applications are determined by officers, under delegated powers, could be a huge step forward.