Headlines: December 6th, 2006



Proposals to improve the flexibility and responsiveness of the planning system and to make more efficient use of land have been set out in a report by the economist Kate Barker. She wants to see a faster local plan-making process, tailor-made delivery agreements between developers and planning authorities and a sharp reduction in the number of applications delayed by being called in by ministers.

Local authorities welcomed the fact that the review recognised that time was up for a centrally-controlled planning and that decision were best made locally but the report, commissioned by the Treasury, ran into some immediate criticism with Friends of the Earth warning that local communities would be the big losers if it was implemented and the Campaign to Protect Rural England fearing that the proposals would speed the rate at which development was eating up the countryside.

Kate Barker’s report highlights the importance of planning in delivering sustainable economic development against a background of a growing population, rising incomes, changing demographics, climate change and the challenges of rapid changes in the global economy. “The planning system has a profound impact on our quality of life, but the current system will come under increasing pressures in the coming decade. Building on recent reforms, the recommendations in my report provide a comprehensive set of measures to ensure we have a planning system that is timely, transparent, flexible and responsive enough to meet the challenges that lie ahead,” she said.

Her report points to the costs placed on developers, businesses and communities when the planning system is slow, unpredictable and bureaucratic and it recommends streamlining policies to improve efficiency. The proposals include large-scale rationalisation of national planning guidance to create a clearer policy framework and faster local plan-making processes so they are drawn up in 18 months to two years rather than the current three to three-and-a-half years. That, the report says, could save councils more than a hundred million pounds over three years.

The review also wants to see a more risk-based and proportionate approach to regulation with less paperwork being required to support applications; greater certainty on timescales for applications through new, individually tailored agreements between planning authorities and developers; faster processing of appeals and a halving of the number of applications that are called in. In line with last week’s Eddington Study of Transport, the Barker review urges a radical overhaul of the planning system for major infrastructure projects, including transport, waste and energy. On flexibility to support economic growth the review suggests allowing minor changes to commercial premises without planning permission; updating planning policy guidance on economic development for the first time in 14 years and ensuring decision makers take better account of relevant price and market signals.

The report’s proposals for more efficient use of land include encouraging a high proportion of new development into towns and urban areas through the town-centre first policy and the use of fiscal measures to encourage empty properties are put back into use. Barker also wants to see steps to ensure there is enough land for developments that cannot take place in towns and cities but says valued green space in urban areas should be protected. She recommends a more positive approach to applications that improve the quality of land classified as green belt through creating accessible parkland or woodland.

Friends of the Earth believe the reforms will give business, and in particular supermarket chains, a greater say in planning decisions. The Government, it says, has already committed to a new White Paper on planning to implement the review’s recommendations and FOE’s Planning Advisor, Hugh Ellis, warned, “Local communities will be the big loser if the Barker Review is implemented. Barker’s vision of uncontrolled development will mean communities have little or no say in how their local area is developed.” The CPRE also raised concerns and urged the Government not to undermine the planning system’s role in protecting the countryside and the environment. Chief Executive Shaun Spiers said, “We fear that some of her recommendations, if implemented, would speed up the rate at which new development sprawls over the countryside – to the detriment of us all.”

Local authority leaders, though, were more positive. The chairman of the Local Government Association, Lord Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, said the review had recognised that the time was up for a centrally-controlled planning system and the answer was decisions made locally. “Councillors working with their communities are best placed to create attractive places with more jobs and more and better designed homes. These will be the benefits of less interference by ministers in planning issues which have no implications beyond council boundaries,” he said.