Posted by: Adam Roake | April 5, 2011

Pro-Growth Localism

We’ve had the Localism Bill and now the Budget both of which include some significant indications for where the Coalition Government is aiming with planning and housing policy. I say indications because the detail is still missing; in particular everything could change when they publish the definition of “sustainable development” (due end of May apparently) and the National Planning Policy Framework (end of the year). Nonetheless some clarity is emerging.

  1. It seems, much as I predicted here and here, that the Coalition are right behind Localism so long as the locals are pro-growth. The presumption in favour of sustainable development will trump everything, so that “the default is yes” for planning applications. This should rule out NIMBYist Neighbourhood Plans, causing much disappointment and possibly resentment amongst those expecting NPs to prevent nasty new development in their patch. DCLG’s explanation of planning changes announced in the budget states:

    “Some reforms to the planning system will take time to deliver. But local authorities can start immediately prioritising growth in the decisions that they take locally. The Government has today made clear its expectation that every council should be firmly on the front foot in encouraging and supporting growth.”

    Remember too that the PPS3 requirement for a five year housing land supply is still present and all the indications are that a requirement for a sufficient housing land supply will transfer into the National Policy Framework. A demonstrable lack of housing land still provides sufficient justification for Mr Pickles to allow development in that holy of holies, the Green Belt.

    Finally, as if to put the last nail in the coffin, the DCLG have announced,

    The 17 neighbourhood planning front-runners will be led by Local Authorities, who will work with community groups and parish councils to prepare draft plans and NDOs“.

    It would be easy to think that “working with community groups and parish councils” is precisely what local authorities think they do now so that what used to be Area Action Plans will simply be relabelled as Neighbourhood Plans. La plus ca change….

    So if you are a local amenity group looking to protect your district with a Neighbourhood Plan or two, beware. It seems you will be overruled if you stray toward NIMBYism. This government might be happy to see you taking an active role in civic society but this is only acceptable if you adopt a pro-growth strategy and if you agree to whatever your local authority thinks would be best. One wonders who will engage in that sort of process.

  2. If you are a Local Authority, it is essential that you take your head out of the sand and deliver on the basics of a clear Core Strategy and a sound housing land supply for at least the next ten years. Leading politicians have been blaming planners for all the world’s evils and it would be very easy to waste energy responding to that. But if local authorities do not get their act together and produce the planning policy they are supposed to, they will really have let down their constituents.

    My council, Canterbury City, is not alone in maintaining the following stance;

    The government is also proposing further changes to the way the planning system works as part of the ‘localism’ agenda. However, these are unlikely to go through Parliament before the end of the year, so it will be some time before the council knows how the planning system will operate in the future. Until this is clear, the council will not take the Core Strategy forward.

    Of course doing nothing saves money but is clearly untenable against advice from DCLG such as the latest “Planning and the Budget” document, which states, “Local authorities should be pressing ahead without delay in preparing up-to-date development plans which set out the opportunities for growth in their areas.” This advice is repeated in Greg Clark’s Written Ministerial Statement of 23rd March, which Steve Quartermain sent by letter on 31st March to all chief planning officers. The Coalition Government have made it crystal clear that in the short to medium term, failure to produce a proper plan will result in an entirely permissive planning regime, where developers will decide what goes where and neither Local Authority nor locals will have a say.

    The Local authority planning machine is way behind in producing LDFs and is suffering fairly swingeing cuts along with other public sector colleagues. There is no doubt central government will blame local government if local people are not engaged in Neighbourhood Planning and also if local government does not encourage and support ‘growth’ (i.e. more housing). I think it might be a good time for officers to move from public sector planning into the private sector. As for councillors, it is crucial that you show real leadership and develop some policies in consultation with your constituents aimed at fostering growth.

  3. If you are a developer, you are the first born sons and daughters of the Coalition Government. A permissive National Policy Framework will enable you to ride roughshod over most attempts to restrict growth (aka new housing) provided you ensure that growth takes the form of “sustainable development”. The current definition of what sustainable development might mean appears in section 10 of the Planning Act 2008; you need to ensure you are mitigating and adapting to climate change and also achieving good design. For the former, I would have thought compliance with the Code for Sustainable Homes should do the trick and, for the latter, I strongly commend Building For Life, particularly supported by an independent assessment from an accredited assessor, such as me! I cannot see the coalition imposing a harsher burden on the construction industry although you will also have to “consult” with the local community as set out in the Localism Bill (I can help you with that too).

    So you have a permissive planning policy regime at national level, a chaotic and unresponsive policy regime at local decision-making level and neighbourhood groups who have been promised the world but only if they let you build more housing. What are you waiting for? Oh I forgot that only half as many people as usual are actually buying new homes, so maybe you want to take things a bit carefully. Unlike certain politicians, I’m not expecting you to solve our housing crisis.

Overall, it seems to me that the Coalition Government is trying to do something positive to address the adversarial planning system we have spent the last sixty years developing. It must be a good idea that local people engage with housebuilders for mutual benefit and local planning policy and development control teams should be enabling this as part of the process. However, I think the problem may be that we have an adversarial legal system for better or worse and planning law is just one branch of that greater whole. If anything were to go wrong in the new collaborative process, then the gloves will come off and the legal system will kick in. For a housebuilder, five extra homes on a site could be worth £1million – why wouldn’t you risk a few months and costs of perhaps a tenth of that value. For the local people five extra homes could amount to ‘overdevelopment’, the battle-cry of the NIMBY. In consequence the Coalition Government has adopted a somewhat schizophrenic approach where the two most important priorities, Growth and Localism, lie together as uneasy bedfellows. It remains to be seen whether both can be successfully accommodated within one policy framework and then delivered in the real world.  My prediction is that Growth, sponsored by the Treasury and BIS, will easily overwhelm Localism, sponsored by CLG.



  1. It does make you wonder whether Canterbury Council (politicians) has been taking any advice; if so, from whom, and if the advice was followed or ignored.

  2. I rather suspect it’s a political decision, with little advice sought or given for that matter. Much is being made in propaganda for the forthcoming elections by local opposition parties of the ruling party’s “plans to concrete over the countryside”. For their part, the ruling party are keen to claim they have no such plans. Someone will end up breaking promises.

    Canterbury are openly defying government advice but the lack of action from other boroughs on LDFs amounts to the same thing and will ill-serve their constituents.

  3. […] Kind of confirms my take on the Coalition’s real approach to Localism. […]

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