A radical Conservative vision for planning?

A J July 2006 by Brian Waters

‘Gummer unveils vision of a planning revolution’* made good headlines for a day, but is it really just a bit more gesture politicking? Good at least that Her Majesty’s Opposition is on the case for sustainability and planning and they are bringing credible players to focus minds on future policy. John Gummer is unusually well respected by all sides for his term as Environment Secretary – one could name other old Tories who are not!

The proposition of the moment is to drop the need for planning permission for extensions to post-1945 housing so as to free up planners for major projects. ” Homeowners would no longer have to win planning permission – all they would have to do is lodge a statement of intent with the local authority. If this statement proved unacceptable, planners would have the right to veto a scheme only if it was ‘truly dreadful’. The assumption would be that homeowners could do what they wanted to their own properties, a right that would, Gummer claimed, “civilise estates”.

A weakness would be the residual need for every such application to be scrutinised, retaining the opportunity for objections, local political involvement and the requirement for officers to make judgements. Many would trip at these hurdles as they do now, especially in vast swathes of conservation areas.

The aim of letting small ‘householder’ development bypass the development control system is laudable but not original. George Dobry QC famously proposed treating such applications as a separate class in 1968. The Householder Development Consents Review has been rumbling around the ODPM, or whatever it is called this week, for well over a year but its emergence seems ominously uncertain. Local politicians fear losing power and influence.

It was announced by John Prescott in January 2005 and I wrote about it here last October* in anticipation of proposals which are still to emerge. I postulated that the review would recognise that much of the problem derives from the complexity and obscurity of the General permitted Development Order (GPDO) which has evolved over the years and become a playground for lawyers: “Out will go the calculation of volumes and confusing dimensions of extensions and car ports and in will come an assessment of the impact of a proposal on neighbours and the wider community.” A mechanism modelled on the Party Wall etc. Act is what the Association of Consultant Architects (ACA) is calling for.

This would have the advantage over Gummer’s suggestions of simply removing the majority of small developments from the purview of the local authority altogether . The proposer would hire an ‘approved professional’ to assess who was affected under clear guidelines and policies and would approach them for agreement, mediation, or meet the cost of negotiating with their representative. Development between consenting adults, you might say.

John Gummer might consider this mechanism but more importantly, as chairman of David Cameron’s Quality of Life task force, he would be well advised to review New Labour’s ‘Modernising Planning’ which emerged surprisingly early after their assumption of power in 1997. It presented a vision of simplification of the whole system by imposing a hierarchy of decision making. It was in large part a reaction to the horrors of the long-running Heathrow T5 Inquiry but is no less relevant in its concerns now, particularly since its implementation has largely failed.

Why so? First, the collapse of plans for legitimate regional government which was to determine spatial planning strategy at that level (Parliament deciding on such things as airport policy) second, just as the country was at last covered by development plans as required by s54A of the ‘plan-led’ regime, it gets replaced by the new and complex framework-plans system and third, demands for ever more consultation.

What then will be the lessons for planning of the last ten years? Avoid too much doing and trying to do too much. A fearless introduction of the Householder Consent Review along the lines envisaged by the ACA would be a good start.

*report AJ+ 18 May

** AJ: Oct 2005

Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen partnership, see www.bwcp.co.uk