Comment on Conservative Green Paper
Date of Article
Feb 25 2010

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Conservative Green Paper – ‘Open Source Planning’

Views from David Boulton Dip TP MRTPI, Partner in the planning department of our Harrogate office.

I read with interest that the new Disney blockbuster ‘Alice in Wonderland’ may not be screened at Odeon cinemas across the country – a disappointment for my children and movie goers alike.

Nevertheless, the publication of the Conservative Green Paper on Planning is a more than adequate replacement telling us of a soon to be realised far away land where the planning system operates with ease through the involvement of whole communities and co-operation and agreement of all, government intrusion is minimal and the power is rightly ‘with the people’.

The analogy continues with planning applications being determined upon a process not dissimilar to the X-Factor too – a popularity contest with development schemes being approved swiftly if ‘a significant majority of immediate neighbours raise no objection’ or have been suitably recompensed for their inconvenience. An open door for the serial objector no doubt who would also have a new third party right of appeal against any decision too.

The green paper rightly recognises the inadequacies of what it calls the present ‘broken system’ of planning in England with bureaucratic barriers to involvement, a negative and adversarial system that has stymied innovation, positive change and undermined the reality that development can provide a benefit as opposed to being wholly detrimental.

The proposed approach has, at its foundation, the concept of ‘collaborative democracy’ where decisions and polices for an area are based upon ‘real’ community consultation and (wait for it) agreement as to the best way forward for all.

A fantastic concept but not something that reflects reality and the nature of the society in which we live in.

The utter irony is that the green paper encourages and expects, if not demands, a collaborative approach to planning – all very mature and idealistic. This is especially so as we all know how Parliament deals with conflicting issues – with positions/views entrenched upon party lines and a political dogfight ensues. If co-operation and consensus is good enough for planning at a local level why not put such an approach into practice at the heart of Westminster?

The fact is that it is not realistic and, in the case of planning, a Council’s role as environmental umpire will still be needed in the form of both elected Members input and decisions based upon Planning Officer opinion.

As you will tell, while there are some good positive ideas, I am not convinced by the overall approach of the new proposals. The paper is ambitious and provides a fresh look at how we deal with making plans for, and consider, new development – it is clearly (and hopefully) a work in progress that will mature over time but does provide an insight into what a potential new government may seek to pursue.

The fact that the system will be changing yet again if we have a new government is concern enough, the nature of these changes add a new dimension of parochial planning where I fear control will be in the hands of the vociferous few and, equally, those developers who can effectively ‘recompense’ a local community for any harm caused by development.

From a Yorkshire perspective, it is clear that the progression of the various Local Plans and now Local Development Frameworks (LDF’s) have met with differing degrees of success and enthusiasm in terms of encouraging or controlling development and being community led, yet alone actually being adopted. The long delayed Leeds UDP and now LDF a classic example of the inertia of the present local planning system.

If anything, the green paper’s further emphasis on making a ‘truly local plan’ could mean more constraints on development combined with increased demands from local authorities for affordable housing and contributions derived from development schemes.  This would be particularly relevant in high demand areas such as Harrogate and York where there is an inherent conflict between those who seek to prevent development and the development sector who see it as a prime area for investment. The reality of ‘collaborative democracy’ would, in my view, be a distant reality where such deep seated differences prevail. The need to make yourself heard, and effectively, would become much more important.

As for more rural parts of the county, there is potential for a more positive approach to be realised than at present with the green paper opening up the debate about what sustainable development may mean in any particular area and seeking to redefine farm buildings as brownfield land as a means of encouraging their re-use. Such a change may enable farmers and rural landowners to yet still be able to broaden their horizons.

As for major, nationally significant projects of significance for our region, such as high speed rail (HSR) and power generation, the emphasis would be upon delivery and, for the former, decisions able to be made at Parliamentary level. This could mean the realisation of projects sooner and a positive move for the development of the rail network within the region and enhanced links to other major cities countrywide. The economic benefits to the region are clearly illustrated in the recently published KPMG study, which identifies Yorkshire and the Humber as a potential major beneficiary of such investment in terms of employment growth and inward investment.

The green papers suggested approach would also remove the past everlasting wrangling at major public inquiries with the decisions for ‘the greater good’ being streamlined through ‘short and focussed planning inquiries’ under the remit of a new Major Infrastructure Unit – a rework of the governments Infrastructure Planning Commission – who would make a recommendation to the Secretary of State.

The importance of political lobbying would increase exponentially no doubt under such a system as well as the significance of the political clout of your respective local MP in a future government.