If, like me, you’re a regular reader of Planning magazine, you’ll have noticed that the sub species ‘homo sapiens plannorum’ (the planning officer) feels itself to be in imminent danger of extinction. Not by outright extermination, but by the sidelining of its practices.
This assertive race, who have steered the hopes and dreams of many a self-builder into a cul-de-sac, now find themselves ill-equipped, in evolutionary terms, to deal with the current economic climate.
Their laments are piteous in the face of Government hostility. In budget after budget Chancellor George Osborne berates planners for many of the ills that have befallen society. David Cameron, speaking at the most recent party conference, launched another attack on the planning system: “If we’re going to be a winner in this global race we’ve got to beat off this suffocating bureaucracy once and for all.”
Section 106 Agreements and their follow up, the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), first came into prominence under Labour, but were broadly accepted by both parties now in coalition. But that acceptance was in a distinctly different age. Then it seemed perfectly right and reasonable that those taking advantage of a system that, by the stroke of a pen, handed out rewards in the form of increased equity and profit through land development, should pay some of those profits back into society.
Now, however, land lies fallow and those hoped-for profits have succumbed to falling values and lack of purchasers. So, when the only part of the economic equation for developers and self-builders alike that is mutable seems to be these levies, it is understandable that this Government should point to renegotiation, simply to help remove the log jam.
But what do the planners think of this idea? One leader in Planning argues that: “councils must avoid appearing to give way too easily on Section 106 Agreements,” but also quite rightly points out that levies are not the only factors in so many building sites being padlocked shut. Other August contributors get to the real nub of the argument, indicating that real and potential income from levies is necessary to maintain their department’s budgets and may be a factor in their continued existence.
Another idea that has hit headlines is the Government’s wheeze to enhance householders rights to extend their homes. The most telling lament from planners was that these proposals would lead to a diminution of fees paid to local authorities (LAs) by removing so many potential applications from the system. This in turn could lead to further job cut backs.
What’s more, the Growth and Infrastructure Bill threatens to remove planning powers from LAs that are perceived to have a poor track record, allowing developers to bypass them completely. And as if that’s not punishment enough, the administrative costs of such applications will still have to be borne by the LA, whilst the fees will go unpaid. Sooner or later, some bright spark will suggest a planning holiday with some sort of free-for-all.
I’m not for that; this is not the wild west. What we do need, however, is to stop tinkering around the edges of outdated acts and instead have a complete re-evaluation of the planning system to balance modern-day requirements, commercial imperative and our heritage. And that’s not something we have at present.