Planning for growth

Draft text of the speech - may differ from the delivered version. All nations are shaped by geography and history. America is founded on …

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Greg Clark MP

Draft text of the speech - may differ from the delivered version.

All nations are shaped by geography and history. America is founded on an idea of limitless freedom and space. Historically, if you disagreed with someone, you could head West. The answer to conflict about access to limited resources was the wagon train.

In this country, the answer was the orderly queue. Planning arises from this same tradition of sharing space in a fair, rational and ordered way. It is an inherently civilised activity. By making places that work, it encourages investment and promotes growth. This is a unique kind of public service, and a profession that deserves to be valued and respected.

But we have arrived at the sad state today where planning, far from being held in public esteem, is viewed with mistrust or worse. If you Google “planning decision” plus “crazy” you get 17,000 results; plus “stupid,” 18,000 results. At the Planning Officers’ Society conference last week the backdrop was a blow-up of the front page of a local paper lambasting a local authority, and that’s indicative of a much wider malaise.

Instead of planning being seen as the forum and the discipline whereby people can shape the places where they live for the better, it has become a crucible for controversy and acrimony. Granted, planning is all about difficult decisions - and not everyone can get exactly what they want every time - but there is a degree of pessimism that is deeply unhealthy. In some places the default response to proposed development has become unconditional opposition. This is a bleak prospect.

This government is proposing fundamental reform. We want to restore the reputation of planning as a service that works for the public, and that the public feel is on their side. Instead of being principally a means of arbitrating disputes, it should be a positive process, where people come together and agree a vision for the future of the place where they live. It should also - crucially - be a system that delivers more growth.

I want to make this crystal clear. I am pro-development. The built environment offers some of the glories of our towns and cities. This city alone is home to thousands of buildings, palaces, castles, homes, towers and bridges which lift the spirit, express local character, and draw visitors from the world over. In rural areas, many of the villages and hamlets that people love best are examples not of nature in the raw but of the sensitive, imaginative interplay between the built environment and the natural environment.

Our aim with the Localism Bill is not to prevent new building, but to promote it.

Every single proposal in the Bill has been subject to a rigorous test: will this help us unlock growth? Take the third party right of appeal, for example. This was an idea mooted in policy consultations released before the election by both parties currently in government. But it’s paradoxical on one hand to design a system that’s about putting choice first - that’s about giving local people better opportunities to draw up high-quality plans for their neighbourhoods and local areas - and then, with the other hand, to give greater chances to appeal against decisions made on the basis of those plans. So the third party right of appeal is not part of the Bill.

Instead, we have proposals which go back to first principles - not just tinkering with processes, but rebooting the way we think about planning altogether.

The first shortcoming in the current system is that too often the communities and neighbourhoods that host new development do not feel a direct benefit. They do not share in the proceeds of growth. And when new development has taken place, all too often it has not been matched with investment in infrastructure - in transport, schools, or hospitals.

Our goal is to increase and underline the local benefits of development. Authorities that take responsibility and encourage growth should be recognised proportionately. In our consultation the New Homes Bonus, we’re proposing that for every new home that gets built in its area, a local authority should get six years of matched council tax funding, with an extra supplement for affordable homes. And instead of operating under direction from the Treasury, local authorities should be free to spend this money on local priorities: whether it’s keeping council tax at an affordable level, investing in homes, or improving local services.

We also want to make sure that benefits are felt at a very local, neighbourhood level. Take the Community Infrastructure Levy. We are proposing that councils should be required to ensure that a meaningful proportion of the charge on new development is spent at that very local, neighbourhood level, nearest to where development takes place. The people who see the new estate going up at the end of the street should feel the benefit of extra investment in community facilities and improved transport.

The second shortcoming we want to address is a lack of meaningful public participation in planning. The evidence of inquiry by design in this country, and other models of getting people involved on the continent, suggest that early involvement in the decision-making process means people are more likely to be supportive of local development. The more people participate, the more likely it is that development is to take place.

Compare and contrast with the approach taken in Regional Spatial Strategies. Ultimately these strategies, with their housing targets imposed on local areas, were more effective at generating resentment than at getting houses built. The simple fact is that people don’t like being told what to do. In several cases, the overwhelming majority of public responses to consultation were negative. The Bill is designed to scrap the Strategies once and for all.

In their place, we’re introducing a duty on councils to work together across borders in a way that reflects their genuine shared interests. Over three fifths of people in England now live in parts of the country where there is a local economic partnership. These partnerships show business and political leaders working together and thinking strategically to create jobs and boost the economy - localism and growth hand in hand.

At the same time, we want to create more options for local communities to exercise influence in the planning process. Neighbourhood planning will let people come together at a very local level and decide, together, where the new homes, shops and businesses should go, and what they should look like. The local authority will provide technical support so that the proposals that local people draw up are of decent technical quality.

This is a very significant change in the way we think about planning. This is not a chance to be “consulted then ignored,” but to wield real power. If approved by a majority of residents in a local referendum, a neighbourhood development plan must be brought into force by the local authority.

There will of course be safeguards in the system. This is a Bill is firmly anchored in the need for growth, and no man is an island. Neighbourhood planning isn’t a way of a group declaring a UDI from the wider area they live in. Their plans must be consistent with the needs and ambitions of residents of the wider area too - including the need for economic growth. That’s why it’s incredibly important for councils to keep on drawing up their own plans: there’s no excuse to slow down and every reason to speed up.

And, to be explicit, if there’s an overwhelming need for new homes in the local authority area, the neighbourhood plan is not a way for a neighbourhood to refuse to host its fair share. Though they can, if the wish, grant permission for a greater number of homes than the local authority expects. In other words, neighbourhood planning is not a way of saying “no” to any development. It can be a way of saying “yes” to more.

And in fact - with the new homes bonus and the changes to the community infrastructure levy - local people have more reasons than ever to do so.

This is the essence of our proposals. Opportunities for communities to make genuine choices about the future of their neighbourhoods, and genuine reasons to say “yes” to development: the foundations for renewed growth.

Published 2 February 2011