Mark Pawsey is Member of Parliament for Rugby. Follow him on Twitter.
As MPs return to Westminster after a busy summer of constituency work, many can be forgiven for thinking we are arriving back in September 2011. This time last year, the Government had just launched its major re-haul of the planning system, the National Planning Policy Framework. A radical reduction of planning law, its aim was to stimulate development and, in the process, stimulate the economy. After a period of consultation, the presumption in favour of development has returned, ridding us of the previous presumption in favour of delay, something that had curtailed development for too long. Yet skip forward a year and planning is back on the front pages.
And why? Sadly, announcements made over the weekend setting out substantial infrastructure and development proposals have been overshadowed by unsubstantiated claims about threats to the countryside. The fundamental need for growth is well understood but it won’t be achieved if we get bogged down now with more controversy about the Green Belt. What the Chancellor detailed on Sunday was simply common sense. If development is required on an area of the Green Belt, then simply, another equivalent area of land in the local area must be added to the Green Belt. Former Green Belt being swapped for new Green Belt. The net result? No reduction in the total Green Belt. In an article entitled ‘The great myth of urban Britain’ even the BBC drew attention to the fact that 98% of the UK was natural and not built-on and so this government cannot be accused of bulldozing our countryside.
However, what has happened over the last few weeks is that there has been a much-needed recognition in Government that planning goes further than planning law. We need to focus in addition on planning guidance and the delays that consultees to planning can put into the process of development. For instance, the Government’s own consultation paper in July this year detailed the number of ‘Statutory Consultees’ that are to be consulted on relevant planning applications. This list numbered 27 and includes organisations such as the “Forestry Commission”, the “Garden History Society” and the catchy “National Air Control Transport Services Operators of Officially Safeguarded Civil Aerodromes”. As their own paper says, “authorities are reluctant to determine applications without input from these key bodies”. This is where delays start. Planning is being strangled and even halted because local authorities have to wait for opinion of these bodies.