David Bainbridge, a Partner at Bidwells, outlines how the recent changes in key government personnel could alter the outlook for planning.
With the dust settled on the local elections and new leaders installed in various local authorities, it seems right to take stock and reflect on what might be.
At the national level, Boris Johnson’s new team includes Robert Jenrick MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government and Esther McVey MP, Minister of State in the same Department.
Both will be busy mastering their briefs which range from a review of building regulations and governance in local authorities through to a myriad of announcements on housing and the planning system.
One of the most pressing will be work on the promised new green paper intended to accelerate the planning system. This is expected in the autumn but it remains to be seen whether there is any bandwidth for this following the 3rd September return of Parliament and prior to the 31th October deadline for exiting of the EU.
Many would call on the Secretary of State to consider preparation of a coherent strategy for housing development. A robust but understandable approach to calculating housing requirements, especially across local authority boundaries, would be close to the top of most wish-lists.
The local elections resulted in the usual dumping of sites and now that the politics should have largely settled-down, it is time to plan for housing through local plans and decisions on planning applications and planning appeals. These can be tough political and environmental decisions which those politicians used to campaigning and not used to holding power might shy away from. There are rarely votes in planning for housing development on green fields and yet this is needed to take the next-step towards delivery of 300,000 new homes a year.
Fast track system
The Planning Inspectorate has announced that all planning appeal inquiries will follow the new fast-track system where most are being heard within 16 weeks from start. This should positively affect the planning for housing as housing development comprises some 80% of appeals. However, one must guard against the down-grading of appeals to reduce the resource-take.
The Secretary of State determines called-in planning applications and recovered planning appeals. Whilst there is policy to guide the decision whether to call-in or recover for his own determination, it is the case that reasoning for this does not have to be published.
Decisions at this level can be the sharp-end of politics and planning, with decisions eagerly awaited and poured-over when released. It is unsurprising that some decisions are legally challenged through the High Court and Court of Appeal.
Appellants awaiting a determination or re-determination following a successful legal challenge to a dismissed decision might take some encouragement from a new Secretary of State. A fresh and open mind can open parts of evidence which might otherwise have been given less weight.
The planning system is all about planning for the future and with this comes uncertainty and risk. Ideally the risk involved with plan-making and decision-making can be reduced through firm and clear guidance to local authorities to plan for their housing requirement and any from adjoining authorities. A return to pre-2010 strategic planning seems unlikely, but this would be welcome if it makes an appearance in the future green paper.
In the main the demand for housing across much of the country remains strong with good mortgage availability and confidence in the employment market. This is especially prevalent in the south east and east of England where there is simply not enough housing, and especially insufficient housing which is affordable for the average household incomes in most locations.
A new broom in the Ministry, well ahead of the Halloween deadline, should deliver some short-term positive results for planning applications and planning appeals and hopefully a renewed focus on more strategic planning without the distraction of electioneering; well, until May 2020 that is.