The Queen’s Speech: objecting to the objectors

It’s that time again. Another Government has promised to ‘tear up’ the planning system making it ‘simpler, fairer, and more modern’ as part of yesterday’s Queen’s Speech.

The proposals, initially brought forward as part of the Government’s Planning Reform White Paper in August 2020, would designate land for either ‘Growth’ or ‘Protection’, with a further designation of ‘Renewal’ still under consideration. Land within Growth zones would have an automatic presumption in favour of development.

The aim of the policy is to turbo-charge housebuilding to reach the Government’s target of 300,000 homes a year by the end of the Parliament. Increasing home ownership would also, we are told, support the Conservative electoral strategy in the Red Wall – something I’m sure Labour local authorities will support.

Will this policy succeed where others have – by the Government’s own reasoning – failed?

Currently, objectors to development – as well as local councillors – have two opportunities to thwart development. Either they can object at the Local Plan stage or when a specific application comes forward. The stated aim of the policy is to prevent NIMBYs controlling decision making.

The Government’s reforms would remove the latter opportunity and place more emphasis on the former, with Local Plans having greater control over matters such as design codes.

This will probably have the desired effect. Local Plans are far more complex and difficult to engage with, and with timescales stretching around 30 years many communities already struggle to see the relevance. Individual planning applications, however, are much more tangible and immediate.

However, Local Plans constitute lengthy processes with some taking many years to develop. The proposed reforms are likely to place additional burdens of detail, consultation, and planning on the strategic process – slowing them down rather than speeding them up.

Where opposition exists at the Local Plan level, our anecdotal experience tells us that the process can grind to a frustrating halt. Councillors – who, in some cases, have only had a few hours of planning training – become scared of making difficult decisions and as soon as elections appear on the horizon all momentum is lost.

Without the safeguard of a further planning process, decisions will inevitably take longer.

The battle lines are already being drawn. Prominent Conservative backbenchers, including Theresa May and Theresa Villiers, yesterday set out their opposition. They talk of their communities feeling ‘under siege’ by developers and partnering with CPRE to challenge the Government.

In truth, it is politics which slows down the planning system. Opposition to development is an easy bandwagon to join for a local MP or councillor. Those objecting tend to vote and very few in the community will stand against you as part of a pro-development lobby.

The only way we will truly speed up our planning system is by removing politics from the decision-making process. This is impossible today, but perhaps the Government’s approach could pave the way to a more rational and evidence-led planning system which considers local views but is not subservient to them.