Is local planning returning to central control?
By Dr John Stanton
Five years ago, following numerous policies and promises made in the name of the Big Society, the Coalition Government passed the Localism Act and with it fundamental changes to local planning.
The underlying premise was a desire to decentralise – empower communities to take the initiative with regard to local development and enable them to decide for themselves how local plans should take shape.
Potential changes announced last week, however, threaten the realisation of these objectives. As part of plans to improve productivity, George Osborne is recommending, among other things, that automatic planning permission be granted in respect of plans to develop brownfield sites and that planning rules be relaxed in the capital, meaning that skyward developments (high-rise building construction) be allowed without council approval. One of the reasons justifying the change has been the persistence of considerable delay at the local level in realising plans and effecting development, something that has been caused by a lack of local resources.
This has been a common problem in recent years; research has shown that localism policy and reform, introduced by the last government, whilst on the face of it invigorating and relevant, has effectively struggled to be realised due to a lack of local money and appropriate resources.
Though, in one respect, the rationale (clearing the way for brownfield development to take place more easily, thereby speeding up both regeneration and the building of much-needed housing) might seem reasonable, there is a real sense that the government is side-stepping a bigger problem rather than tackling it head on.
Local authorities desperately need more money and greater resources to fulfil their functions effectively. Instead of working through a solution on these lines, however, the government has seemingly reversed attempts at decentralisation and has sought to bring certain aspects of ‘local’ planning back under centralised control.
By proposing that developments to brownfield sites and certain parts of the London skyline be allowed to take place without the input of local consideration, the government is breaching a fundamental tenets of localism. Local authorities are uniquely placed to exercise discretion in respect of planning applications with full knowledge of relevant local factors, including public opinion, appropriateness of applications and their feasibility. It is unthinkable that changes could be made to local areas without the input of a democratically elected council.
Rather than proposing the sweeping acceptance from on high of all applications for brownfield sites and upward extensions in London, therefore, the government should instead be working with councils to determine how problems that have arisen in respect of local planning might more appropriately be resolved.
A brownfield site is defined as previously developed land that has the potential for being redeveloped. It is often (but not always) land that has been used for industrial and commercial purposes and is now derelict.