Fraught foundations?

Following on from the Budget, the Government last week published Fixing the Foundations, 90 pages of wide-ranging proposals intended to boost productivity. A number of these relate to planning, and contain plenty to please developers:

  • A deadline for the production of Local Plans, with government intervention if they are not produced on time
  • Zonal planning on brownfield sites, with automatic permission in principle
  • A commitment to supporting higher-density housing around ‘key commuter hubs’ through powers in the Devolution Bill
  • Stricter rules on planning performance, with penalties for underperforming authorities
  • Allow major infrastructure projects with an element of housing to use the NSIP regime

There is also the promise of major new planning powers for the Mayor of London, including allowing the calling-in of applications for more than 50 homes, and removing the need for planning permissions for upward extensions. While these may initially seem of little relevance here in the North West, in the brave new world of metro mayors, where London leads, others may be expected to follow.

While developers will have been pleased by the announcements, and the undoubted enthusiasm for development that motivates them, it is worth remembering that there are still difficult political questions to be answered. What will the Government do if Conservative-run authorities baulk at Whitehall arranging for Local Plans to be written when they are unhappy with them? What, for that matter, will they think of the insistence that we need to “significantly streamline the length and process of Local Plans”?

The Communities Secretary, Greg Clark, perhaps inadvertently gets to the heart of the matter when he talks on the one hand about “putting local people in control” and on the other about “removing the barriers so we can keep the country building” and “go further and faster”. There is an unaddressed tension between empowering local communities and the policy prescriptions: planning deadlines, strict determination targets, government intervention and zones of liberalised planning, to say nothing of measures to send more applications straight to the Planning Inspectorate.

Ultimately, the Government can prioritise either “putting people in control” or building “further and faster”. At some point, these will conflict. The strong suspicion from Fixing the Foundations is that this Government favours the latter. Whether that will give them political problems in the future remains to be seen.

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