A coherent, efficient planning system has to recognise and relate to issues from the point of view of a range of players operating at different levels: individuals, developers, community and resident groups, businesses, local authorities, and the Government. Regional Spatial Strategies (RSSs) bridged the gap between planning issues determined by local policies and concerns, and those subject to nationally-determined policy aspirations, such as housing or renewable energy. Views are mixed on the merits of Regional Spatial Strategies: opposition to them has highlighted the length and complexity of their preparation; the undemocratic nature of the bodies preparing them; the difficulty of influencing their outcomes; and the 'top-down' housing development targets they contained. Support for them has highlighted their comprehensive, strategic view of planning across each region and their ability to deal with controversial and sometimes emotive developments, such as waste disposal, mineral working and accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers.
The Government is seeking both to revoke current RSSs and abolish the RSS structure through the Localism Bill. The Bill is not expected to gain Royal Assent until towards the end of 2011. Even then, uncertainties will remain about the new planning system until the new plans proposed by the Government have themselves been brought into effect. Significant uncertainties exist over: local authorities' 'duty to co-operate'; the role of the new Local Enterprise Partnerships; the handling of 'larger-than-local' issues in the absence of a regional strategy; contentious planning issues; and the new housebuilding incentive scheme, the New Homes Bonus. It is not clear how the new systems and schemes will be co-ordinated and how they will work in practice. There is no consistent method of collecting data and evidence. There is already delay in bringing forward proposals, and consequent delay in the preparation of local authorities' plans as everyone waits to see what happens. There is in fact a hiatus in planning, which can only have a detrimental effect on the economic recovery.
The drafting of the Localism Bill needs to be improved, so that it provides a framework for local authorities to work within, outlining what actions local authorities should take in their duty to co-operate, how they measure success or failure, how parties insist on the delivery of what has been agreed, and default options if there is inadequate co-operation. The Government must ensure that the beneficial and positive aspects of RSSs, in particular for integrating infrastructure, economic development, housing and environmental protection, are not swept away, but are retained in any new planning framework. There should be a more evidence-based and consultative approach to planning policy making; pragmatism and consensus are essential to ensure active consent to decisions that affect people's everyday lives.
We welcome the Government's recognition of the need for more houses. We especially welcome its intention of ensuring that more homes are built in total than were built immediately before the recession, and of building 150,000 affordable homes over the next four years (although this is not an exceptional number by historic standards). Alongside neighbourhood planning and the 'community right to build', the new housing regime proposed by the Government rests on the success of the New Homes Bonus designed to reward councils financially for new homes built, and providing extra money for the building of affordable homes. The Government predicts an increase of housing supply of between 8 and 13%. We question the likelihood of achieving this increase, given the lack of evidence of the likely efficacy of the New Homes Bonus. We also question the very principle of offering incentives for house building based solely on numbers: while most people recognise the need for more housing, what matters more is where and how well the housing is built and integrated into the community. We recommend that the New Homes Bonus be linked explicitly to the delivery of homes provided for in the local plan following robust assessments of housing need.
The Government needs to ensure that robust and consistent evidence to support local development plans is produced and regularly updated in an effective and efficient manner. It is not acceptable for Ministers to abdicate their responsibilities in this regard by leaving all the responsibility with under-resourced and under-skilled local planning authorities. Such planning uncertainty that currently exists could have social, economic and environmental consequences lasting for many years. The Government must act quickly to ensure that those involved in the planning system have clearer objectives and an effective framework in which to operate. It needs to bring forward a persuasive solution to the problem of those planning issues that cannot be decided at a purely local level.