Speech

Royal Town Planning Institute's annual planning convention

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

Draft text of the speech - may differ from the delivered version. “Planning policy and practice is of pivotal importance to our future…


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

Planning policy and practice is of pivotal importance to our future.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to talk to so many members of the RTPI.

I am absolutely thrilled to have responsibility for planning policy as part of a wider brief to decentralise power from central government to local people.

Planning policy and practice is of pivotal importance to our future.

Many people in public service can change people’s lives in the course of their work - be that through health, education or the social services.

But everyone in this room shapes the world in which new generations live and work - and makes it better than it would otherwise be. The places where children grow up, that will stay with them forever. The workplaces where thousands of people spend thousands of daylight hours. The places we look forward to going home to in the evening.

It is, when you think about it, an awesome responsibility, and I feel privileged to be here.

I want to use this occasion to talk about two things: decentralisation and development.

I believe in them both.

And I believe that they can and should reinforce one another.

Here is an example of what I mean. From my desk I look at this print of Tunbridge Wells, at the heart of the constituency I represent in Parliament.

You might expect a community like this to have a history stretching back to medieval times. In fact, it is a creation of the early modern age.

This print - the first made of the town - was created in 1719, barely one hundred years after the spring that was the town’s raison d’etre was discovered.

By that time they’d already built a colonnade of coffee houses and shops to service visitors to the wells; a chapel to attend to the spiritual needs of the revellers; and various lodging houses to accommodate them.

Carefully laid out on previously empty heath land, you could call Tunbridge Wells the oldest new town in the country.

There wasn’t much of a planning system in those days, of course, let alone one controlled by central government.

And yet our forbears not only built the towns and cities in which we live today, but did so with enthusiasm.

Modern conditions obviously demand a modern planning system. But what we need to restore is the sense of local initiative that once drove our country forward.

The old association between development and opportunity seems to have broken down.

Everyone in this room must have experienced the growth of public hostility not just to new developments, but to the very idea that new development can be a change for the better.

We’ve almost got to the point where any new building project is assumed by default to be negative - something that will destroy, rather than create beauty, that will impair rather than enhance, that will make life worse rather than better.

What a disastrous situation to be in.

The aspects of our world that are built by man have been, and are, our most thrilling achievements.

Why do people cross oceans to experience the Manhattan skyline or the view from Westminster Bridge, and yet regard most future development with dread and foreboding?

I want to get back to a world in which development not only delivers on our practical requirements, but is also seen as an exciting and positive force in all of our lives.

The current planning system has been partly responsible for creating this atmosphere. Even my predecessor John Healey wrote to us this week and said of the planning system “ours was too top down”.

He’s right. The top-down planning model of housing numbers imposed through Regional Spatial Strategies has been very good at generating impressive-sounding numbers, but very bad at turning them into homes.

As you know, last year saw the lowest number of housing completions since 1946, and while the recession clearly had an impact, we are a world away from having created a system in which enough houses are built.

The regional numbers have provoked bitter resistance, which is one of the reasons why only 17 per cent of authorities - 58 out of 336 - have adopted core planning strategies six years after they were introduced.

So when the RTPI manifesto at the last election said that the current planning regime is “largely fit for purpose - it does not need radical overhaul”, I respectfully disagree.

I completely understand the thinking behind the previous model. It was characteristic of previous approaches to Government - and I don’t mean it unkindly.

The old view was that the best way to solve problems - whether in schools, health, local government or planning - was for good, serious people to sit down and work out what is the best template to achieve collective goals, to codify it, and roll that out across the country requiring others to implement it.

The idea was that this would lift up the under-performers to a dramatically higher standard and so improve social welfare.

The trouble is that people, at least in this country, tend not to fall into line with this approach.

They bridle at imposition from afar, however well-intentioned, and will expend considerable effort and ingenuity in resisting it.

It requires a bureaucracy of enforcement which becomes divisive and adversarial and costly as well as entailing uncertainty and delay.

More than that, it doesn’t accord with the real life experience that people are at their best when they can exercise their own talents and judgement - in which local initiative can flourish.

That’s why our approach is built on empowering, rather than disempowering, people and communities.

I can understand why supporters of localism would want to put our commitment to the test. Past experience has taught them that politicians are localists in opposition and centralists in government.

Looking back across the years you will have seen ministers standing before meetings like this, promising to give power away, but never quite getting round to it. So why should this time be different?

Five reasons:

  • firstly, because the Prime Minister has made decentralisation not just a theme of his government, but the theme - in the form of the Big Society
  • secondly, the Big Society forms the basis of the coalition, with a common commitment to localism forming the tightest bond between the two parties
  • thirdly, in the substantial shape of Eric Pickles, localism has a true champion around the Cabinet table
  • fourthly we’re already getting on with the job. We’ve ended HIPs, cut ring fencing of grants to local authorities, ended CAA and announced the abolition of the regional quangos
  • fifthly, as announced in the Queen’s Speech, we will shortly introduce the Decentralisation and Localism Bill. This will be a landmark piece of legislation. Indeed, I challenge anyone to find anything on the statute book that transfers more power from central to local government than is the case with this Bill.

For all of these reasons I can say with some confidence that this is the localist moment, the greatest opportunity for decentralisation in decades.

So what are the key elements of the reforms we want to bring about?

The first is that decisions should be taken at the most local level possible, and by people who are accountable to the public.

That is why we have moved quickly to return to local planning authorities the ability to make a free choice of whether garden land should be developed or not. And of what densities housing should be built at. It is not for central government to mandate a requirement to progressively eradicate the character of our towns and suburbs when this is a matter in which local people, rightly, have an informed view.

It is why we will end regional spatial strategies which embodied the worst type of imposition by bodies with no democratic credibility and accountability, alienating people from a sense of control over their own environment.

And that is why local planning remains important, with local councils and communities collaborating and setting out their visions and plans.

But when I say decisions should be taken at as local a level as possible that is not to say that everything should be at the level of planning committee of one local authority. Neighbouring authorities will have many issues on which they can and should collaborate, and they will have a duty to do so.

For instance, the regeneration of the Thames Gateway provides London, Essex, Kent, Thurrock and Medway with a compelling reason to work together to agree common spatial policies. Which, of course, they wouldn’t if they stuck to either their local, or regional, boundaries.

And there is an important role for national policy. Nowhere is this more important than in the field of major infrastructure projects.

We agree with the previous Government that there should be a fast-track, streamlined planning process for projects of national significance.

However, we don’t believe that the solution arrived at embodies enough democratic accountability. That’s why we will proceed with the designation of the National Policy Statements, but make them subject to ratification by Parliament. Apart from the proper democratic accountability it entails, it will make the NPSs better proofed against successful judicial review.

Similarly, we believe that final decisions should be taken by a Minister, not an unelected official, but subject to the same time frame, and advised by a similar process as under the IPC.

Finally, at a time when we wish to reduce the number of quangos, we believe that the functions of the IPC are best accommodated as a distinct Major Infrastructure Planning Unit within the Planning Inspectorate, reporting directly to Ministers.

The second element to the reforms we are making is to ensure there are powerful incentives to local communities that engage in development - whether for housing or commercial development.

It is unsurprising that enthusiasm for development is often lacking in local communities when, to set against what they may perceive as the risk of new development, there are scarcely any financial returns to the neighbourhood and the wider community. Too often they are hoovered up by central government, disempowering and disincentivising local communities.

One of the principal sources of doubt about localism is not over the willingness of central government to give power away, but whether local communities are willing or able to deal with the responsibility that freedom brings.

Much of it, I’m afraid to say, is rooted in a certain metropolitan bias. As if talent and dedication can only reside at the centre.

Yet it is worth reminding ourselves that the record of central government over the last decade or so has been less than stellar.

Despite all the power and money at its disposal, the centre did not deliver. Public sector productivity has fallen, social mobility has stagnated, inequality has increased and all of our futures are mired in debt.

And what of planning policy? Our national infrastructure has not kept pace with the demands of the 21st century. Basic housing needs have not been met.

No-one is claiming that local government is perfect. But to justify decentralisation it doesn’t have to be. It just needs to be as good as central government, which isn’t a particularly high bar.

And what of the charge that nimbyism will act as a permanent brake to development? I’m afraid I see metropolitan snobbery at work here.

In particular the semi-inverted snobbery aimed at the leafy suburbs and market towns of middle England. Here, supposedly, is the seat of stagnation.

The strongholds of small-mindedness that would preserve themselves in aspic, given half a chance.

Except something doesn’t quite add up.

Consider for instance, the matter of constituency boundaries.

In theory, each constituency should have an equal number of electors.

In practice, rural and suburban seats tend to have more than urban constituencies.

This is because the boundary commissions struggle to keep up with population movements.

And what these movements typically show is a shift from the cities to those leafier areas that are supposedly so resistant to change and development.

Yet in the last 2 decades of the last century, the population of South East England expanded by 10 per cent - twice the national average. In the last 25 years there has been a 30 per cent increase in the number of households in the South east.

Far from stagnating, these communities are flourishing.

Indeed, I believe that the instinct to flourish is present in all our communities - even if it has been suppressed more in some than in others.

It is, for instance, an instinct that can be seen in the municipal traditions of our great cities - each of which has a history of striving not merely for growth, but for greatness.

That vision is still alive today.

I believe that when people enter public life, wanting to make a difference, the dreams that they have are of their own communities.

Their ambitions may be for the nation as whole, but when they envision change, it is familiar people and places that they see in their mind’s eye.

We need to put this vision back into the public view of planning and development.

Over the coming year we will redesign with the policy framework with this objective.

By moving from conflict to collaboration, we can be both pro-development and pro-localist.

By rethinking some of our basic assumptions we can create a planning system fit for the Big Society.

I hope that expert bodies like the RTPI will regard this as an opportunity.

Indeed, as the opportunity of a lifetime.

For the first time we have a Government that not only has been elected with localism as its touchstone policy, but which has the mandate that comes from a clear majority of both the seats and the votes.

I want nothing less than to see a return to the idea that has driven the success of this body that planners, and the planning process, are one of the principal motors of progressive change in our country.