Planning for the future

Remarkable Group ManchesterHow will the next Government tackle the problems of the current system, asks Tom Morrison.

When David Cameron and Nick Clegg walked side by side into 10 Downing Street in 2010 they promised a new era of governance, one that would give more power to local authorities and communities and in turn allow people, at a grass roots level, the ability to shape their neighbourhoods through the planning system.

But as we near the very end of the current Government's lifecycle, we must now look to the future and ask, What now for planning policy in England? and How are the major parties likely to shape this policy if they are elected into government?

Lord Mike Storey, former leader of Liverpool City Council and now a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords, feels a radical change in the funding of planning authorities is needed.

"The cuts to local government have meant many councils have lost experienced planning officers who have the skills to oversee major development projects in their areas. The next government needs to fix this immediate problem. There isn't time to wait."

Storey suggests that whoever forms the next Government should tackle this issue by investing significant resources into creating a new generation of town planners, "I think it would be good to see central government release funding to train younger planning officers in the skills necessary to cope with the bigger demand" he added, "I would urge local authorities also allow their officers time to partake in this training, which could be developed into a professional qualification."

Citing his time at Liverpool City Council, Storey said: "When we were working on the plans for Liverpool ONE, it was important that my team and I worked closely with the planning officers, but it was also important that these officers understood the vision of the project in order for them to deliver it successfully. This process had to involve local people and community groups. Without their support then you are destined to fail with something that size."

This idea resonates with many of those who work within the development industry.

Ian Chapman, director of Seven Architects, says this is the root of the problem that he faces when working with councils. "It is really frustrating that the skills of senior planning officers are being eroded. At one time you could debate proposals with an officer and then end up with a better scheme, however today it is far too black and white and policy driven, it just seems like ticking boxes."

But will the next government listen to these issues? With opinion polls suggesting we could be faced with another coalition government, the emphasis on finding compatible policies between the parties will be a potential concern for anyone with business interests that could be affected by a sudden change in government policy.

In their pre-manifesto, the Liberal Democrats state they want to 'empower local planning authorities' in order to protect the vitality of towns and villages. Tim Farron is a Liberal Democrat MP, he says a lack of ambition and political will has haunted the planning process for years. He claims, "Local people resent development when it comes without the infrastructure and homes that they can afford." To rectify this he suggests councils need to start planning for the long term and communicate better.

He states the problems faced with housebuilding are symptomatic of these issues and to fix them, "The Lib Dems will take the bull by the horns and build the houses we need in well-planned, green communities – including a comprehensive plan to deliver locally-led Garden Cities, 300,000 houses a year and new ways, like Rent to Own, for first time buyers to get on the ladder."

These are all good and noble ideas, but will they solve the issues that are currently being faced by developers up and down the country? There doesn't appear to be a lack of will to build but more a problem in navigating planning applications through the planning process.

The Labour Party believes a mixture of cuts to local government and a lack of leadership and innovation within planning authorities are the causes of the current problems faced by developers and councils wishing to encourage large scale development in their areas.

Shadow Planning Minister, Roberta Blackman-Woods, agrees with Lord Storey's initial assessment of how under resourced planning departments are and has been arguing a similar case for some time. "The Government has no policies in place to deal with these issues and its austerity agenda has just made things worse. It has hit planning departments very hard and I have spoken to many developers who feel they cannot work efficiently with planning authorities because of it."

In an effort to remedy this, Blackman-Woods, says a Labour Government would support councils by giving them the power to set business rates whilst also involving the private sector in joint initiatives. "We would also look to working with 'planning schools' in order to encourage young people to take up a profession in town planning. We want to make planning a more attractive career choice," she said.

So how far will these suggestions go to help make planning authorities more innovative and easy to work with for those in the development and regeneration sectors?

Ian Chapman agrees more investment should be put into training a new generation of planning officers, but that this should be a fast tracked process saying, "It needs to be monitored by those senior planners still in post so the newer officers can learn the skills needed and see the bigger picture and not just worry about the next report or what policy boxes have been ticked."

If the above comments are anything to go by, there seems to a consensus that investment needs to be poured into the training of a new generation of town planners. The cuts to local government have seen a raft of senior planning officers, skilled in managing large scale applications, leave their posts either through voluntary redundancy or through the lure of private sector working. This knock-on effect has damaged the ability of most councils to pass strong, imaginative and innovative planning applications.

Many architects, planners and developers have complained the planning system is too slow, too expensive and too inefficient. This has often led to bigger picture schemes being kicked into touch or simply stopped regardless of how much money has been spent on them.

The main parties have all announced their desire to solve the above issues and make the planning system more efficient. However, this will simply not happen unless investment, training and time is put into developing the planning officers needed to oversee these plans in the coming years. The next Government, whoever it may be, must tackle this issue before things get even worse for those wanting to build in England.

Tom Morrison is account manager at Remarkable Engagement in Manchester

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