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The good, the bad and the ugly in the Planning Bill

Lait Jacqui Lait, the Shadow Minister for Planning and Conservative MP for Beckenham on how the Government is making the planning system less democratic.

So finally we put the Planning Bill to bed, but not with any blessing. It remains one of the most undemocratic pieces of legislation from this authoritarian government.

However, let's do the good bits first. It brings in National Policy Statements (NPS) to try and end the lengthy debates at planning inquiries like those for Heathrow Terminal 5 and Sizewell.  These have
taken up weeks and months of time arguing about national policy.

It brings in what is called a single consent regime which pulls together all the different bits of other Acts which have planning powers.  A complex planning application will now only need one consent, not one for each aspect of the plan.

Errr – that's it!

What is bad about it?

The NPS will not have a substantive vote in Parliament to approve it. That means it lacks democratic legitimacy.  It means that any organisation can refer an NPS to the courts.  The whole point of these
statements is to speed up the planning system – m'learned friends don't usually do things quickly.

Once an NPS is in place, then the second undemocratic proposal comes into play.  The Infrastructure Planning Commission will have to decide on new nuclear power stations, road, airports and many other big
developments under the terms of the NPS.  They are an unelected and unaccountable body, chosen by ministers.  We have already said that anyone who applies to become a commissioner can expect a swift P45 from us. It may be worth noting that the Chairman will be paid more than the Prime Minister.

The government's argument for this second undemocratic lock is that ministers will have a conflict of interest in making the final planning decision if the NPS is theirs.  We agree.  But the solution
is to give the NPS democratic legitimacy – not to take democratic legitimacy away from Ministers who were elected to make these tough decisions.

The British public regard the Ministerial decision as final and, however unhappily, accept it.  It is technically a quasi-judicial decision, but the perception is that it is the final opportunity for the voices of the people to be heard.

We will ensure a substantive vote in Parliament on the NPS and a final Ministerial decision on each application.

We will expand the expertise and skills of the Planning Inspectorate so they can return to their traditional role, admired in so many other countries, of holding the planning inquiries and making recommendations to ministers.

The other bit of trickery that the government has got up to is to curb the right to be heard during an inquiry.  Right to be heard is a euphemism for cross-examination.  One of the criticisms of planning
inquiries has been that too much time is taken up by cross-examination.  There are other ways of dealing with this, rather than take away a right of British people which has its roots in mediaeval times.

We can establish a system of pre-inquiry hearing where the issues that are agreed can be eliminated from the inquiry and only the issues where there is disagreement will be heard.

We will also establish a system where no planning application will be lodged until the applicant has not just consulted about it, but has resolved as many issues as possible.

Both of these straightforward measures would reduce the time taken at planning inquiries which is, legitimately, the principle criticism of the planning system as it has developed over recent years.

The other major proposal in the Planning Bill is the introduction of the Community Infrastructure Levy, which in current economic circumstances is a bit of a sick joke.

Originally the government wanted to introduce a tax on planning gain, but ostensibly they withdrew that idea to be replaced by CIL which was proposed by the industry and professions.  It was to be a
contribution, distinct from S106 agreements, towards the infrastructure implications of any development.  However the Bill retained several concepts of  the Planning Gain Supplement – not least it failed to repeal the relevant Act from 2007.  Suspicious minds could construe the CIL as set up to fail so they could revert to plan A.

Their Lordships achieved a number of concessions, but the repeal of PGS Act was only a request to the Treasury, not an instruction.  In addition, the Levy was not to be debated in their Lordships' House
which indicates that the government considers CIL to be a tax.

The construction industry and associated professions have a great deal of work still to do on the detailed regulations so that CIL does not cripple any economic recovery when once we can perceive it emerging.

All in all a thoroughly bad piece of legislation which, hopefully, we will be able to replace with something which will be more democratic, more workable and more easily able to deliver the infrastructure which
has been so neglected since 1997 and which it so badly needs.


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