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Caroline Spelman MP: Conservatives will allow local communities to shape the future character of their neighbourhoods - unlike Labour, who turned housebuilding into a target-driven fantasy

SPELMAN CAROLINE NW Caroline Spelman is Shadow Secretary of State for Local Government and Communities and writes exclusively here for ConservativeHome about the Conservatives' Planning Green Paper which was published yesterday.

Any objective look at the planning system tells you it simply isn’t delivering.  It lacks democratic accountability or environmental sustainability, and despite an unprecedented property boom it has delivered the lowest number of new homes since World War II.  It is holding our country back and it is fostering mistrust in our political system.

Our planning green paper, Open Source Planning, sets out in detail how we would reform the planning system so that it is more accountable, more efficient and far more capable of delivering the new homes our country so desperately needs.

So we will start with abolishing the arbitrary targets that are conceived in Whitehall and forced on local communities, regardless of the impact on the environment or the infrastructure.  This top-down, one-size-fits-all approach has made the issue of development unnecessarily adversarial by pitching communities against regional quangos in a fight over how neighbourhoods evolve.

The regional housing and planning targets have led to Green Belt being torn up and urban green spaces such as back gardens being replaced with blocks of flats.  Instead of delivering the kind of affordable homes young families desperately need, they have turned housebuilding into a target-driven fantasy, with the emphasis on ticking boxes rather than meeting need.  That’s why expensive city centre apartments languish unsold while family homes get knocked down to make way for yet more flats and it’s why new build homes lack sufficient parking spaces which mean pavements and verges are so congested with cars.

Surely it should be for local councils, in discussion with local communities, to define the criteria and objective for new development?  It’s obvious that local people will understand the needs and sensitivities of an area better than a remote bureaucrat process.

We need a more mature way of securing development and making sure we get the right kind of homes built in the right places.  That’s why we are going to replace central targets with genuine local plans so that communities can come together and shape the character of their neighbourhood.

Local people will be able to get into a proper debate about the merits of new homes and new businesses being built in their area because for the first time they will have a direct link to the financial benefit from that development.  Communities and local authorities will be able to see the rewards of new development and have a direct stake in meeting local need.  At the moment communities more often than not find themselves penalised under the imposition of new development as they see services and infrastructure over-burdened.  We are going to change that so that they become genuine beneficiaries of the new houses and businesses we need.

Every new affordable housing unit built will earn local councils 125% of the council tax raised by that unit; this will reward councils to promote the development of affordable housing. These substantial financial incentives, combined with National Affordable Housing Programme grants to help subsidise construction, and the introduction of Local Housing Trusts, will deliver substantial amounts of affordable housing.

Once local communities and their councils have agreed on the way in which local need is going to be met this will become the ‘local plan’, and the powers of the Planning Inspectorate to over-rule that plan will be abolished.  The effect of this will be that whilst sustainable development will be encouraged as long as it conforms to the plan, environmentally important locations such as Green Belt, urban green spaces and wildlife habitats will be protected.

To ensure that the plans work effectively with neighbouring planning authorities there will be a new duty for councils to cooperate on development, which will ensure synchronisation and maximum efficiency in new development.

Within the Paper there are also important measures to get transparency and fairness into the planning system, not least details of our commitment to abolish the Infrastructure Planning Commission and turn it into a specialised infrastructure unit within the Planning Inspectorate accountable to the Secretary of State.  This will deliver real political accountability and also ensure a smooth, efficient transition for infrastructure projects already in train. We will give Parliament a new role to vote on and ratify national planning policy to ensure real democratic legitimacy in the process.

The Paper also addresses the current unfairness in the planning system which often leads to unauthorised traveller sites and illegal trespass, by giving councils stronger enforcement powers and ensuring councils are properly funded for the sites they provide.

What our planning system needs more desperately than ever is to be more efficient and more accountable.  In the race to compete with other countries which emerged from recession long before us our present bureaucratic Soviet-style planning system is holding us back.

The time has come for local communities and local councils to shape the way areas evolve and meet the challenges of a growing population, changing working patterns and new infrastructure demands.  Open Source Planning shows how that can be done, it is online here.


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