17 July 2021

Planning for Change - Cascade's view on the MHCLG Select Committee Report

Image by Dan Johnston from Pixabay

Select Committees are not the most inspiring of viewing, but their evidence and findings in scrutinising government policy gives a window into what our decision makers really think. The Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee (HCLG SC) spent some time recently analysing government proposals for the Planning Bill, which is due to begin the process of receiving Royal Assent in the Autumn.

What this Select Committee says is important and we should listen. We know there are grumblings already from several prominent Conservative MPs, including the former Prime Minister, Theresa May MP. It’s also important to note that its members are well versed on planning, with Ben Everitt, MP for Milton Keynes North, and Bob Blackman, MP for Harrow East, an Officer and member respectively of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Regeneration & Development.

To recap; the Government want to simplify planning so it is in effect a tool to grant, rather than a tool to deny. Nothing new here other than genuine and laudable attempts to flip the whole sector to a presumption in favour of development. The proposals are for three core groups to govern planning with enhanced and binding Local Plans:

- Growth – Development to proceed without planning permission
- Renewal – Permission in principle but with oversight with the local community on issues
- Protection – Current planning rules apply

The Committee has largely critiqued the MHCLG’s proposals to shift public engagement from individual planning applications stage to the local plan stage. They have pointed out that, since residents are more likely to actively involve themselves in individual applications rather than an entire local plan consultation, it will be more difficult for them to really gauge what is being proposed for their areas. One can understand where the Government is coming from here; give residents more say in what happens in their area. However, for the average Joe looking over proposals, local plans are more difficult to predict, and don’t necessarily bear the same significance that an application for a proposed tower block happening down the road may do. So, it is understandable why the Committee has suggested that more research should be commissioned into how people engage in the planning process in order to maximise its efficiency in the long run. Of course, this is a concern that we raised in our response to the Planning for the Future White Paper in November 2020 - Local Plans need to resonate with the community or else they will fail to inspire.

This proposed approach to consultation has not just received criticism from the Committee, but also important figureheads in planning and development. Crispin Truman, Chief Executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), said "Following evidence from CPRE and many more besides, it’s hugely encouraging to see the Committee’s focus on protecting the right of local people to engage in all aspects of planning."

"Under the government’s current proposals, we could see democratic input halved and local people stripped of the right to have a say on individual developments.”

It is difficult to see how the Government can continue on this approach on public consultation regarding development when there is opposition from across the board

Houses need to be built; therefore, land needs to be released. So why does accessible land (not necessarily open spaces) remain padlocked away from those who ultimately transform it for the better? I’m sure the Committee isn’t expecting local authorities to begin tearing up their parks and public spaces for the sake of ticking a few boxes – but that doesn’t change the fact that we are still in a housing crisis, local authorities are failing to meet housing targets, and people need places to live. 

Speaking of housing targets, what of housing formulas? Once upon a time an equation of population growth crossed with infrastructure capacity, slotted in with available land would spit out the perfect number, yet it would appear that this is no longer the correct answer. At least both the MHCLG and Select Committee can agree on that. Whilst the Government has now abandoned a proposed housing formula altogether, the issue remains that a robust formula that considers the variables required to determine planning applications is needed and, with our previous research showing that only 50% of local authorities have an up to date local plan in place, a more forceful approach from central government would not necessarily yield greater results. 

Planning is difficult. Determination of planning applications is difficult. Meeting housing targets is difficult. It is too early to tell whether MHCLG will take on the Select Committee’s recommendations, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if they did not.

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