Tom Burke’s political commentary: These plans for planning need urgent rethinking

ENDS Report 440, p. 54, September 2011.

The government’s national planning policy framework is bad news for business, the environment and for its own green economy ambitions

There is almost certainly a good case to be made for simplifying the planning system by reducing the large volume of planning guidance issued by central government. But the government has not even tried to make it. Instead it has made an argument so clearly implausible that even the Daily Telegraph has seen fit to take up arms against it.

The planning system, we are told, is a major obstacle to economic growth. Growth is now the primary imperative of government policy. Therefore, the planning system must be made to generate growth. We are also short of houses because the planning system discourages investment by housebuilders. Out must go 1,000 pages of planning regulations and in must come 58 pages of sloppily drafted good intentions.

No one should doubt the government’s appetite for growth. The economy grew by a mere 0.2% in the last quarter. The accuracy implied by a number this precise is wholly misleading when it comes to the economy. All we really know is that it did not grow a lot – and nor did it shrink very much.

Nevertheless, such is the government’s hunger for growth that it is now proposing to throw out more than 60 years of successful planning in its pursuit. This will not generate much growth of any kind, let alone green growth. But it will certainly destroy the government’s claim to be “the greenest government ever”.

The proposed National Policy Planning Framework will create a presumption in favour of sustainable development. This sounds green enough but is in fact just a cynical word play dreamed up by a malign alliance of Treasury mandarins and Murdoch-trained spin doctors. As the rest of the document makes clear, any development not specifically forbidden will now be approved.

What the government actually means by ‘sustainable development’ is the tired old Treasury mantra of ‘sustained growth’ – that is, growth that goes on for ever. It definitely does not mean growth that recognises environmental risks and constraints. Indeed, at one point it specifically instructs councils that retail and leisure needs must not be “compromised by limited site availability”.

This is not a policy based on any evidence worthy of the word. It is actually a demonstration of something Goebbels understood: if you repeat a lie often enough it will be mistaken for the truth. The planning system has not been a significant constraint on development in Britain, now or in the past, no matter how many tabloid-friendly anecdotes are thrown up in shabby surveys from business associations.

As the government’s own statistics make clear, more than 80% of planning applications are approved. Of those refusals that are appealed, some 90% are then approved. This means less than 15% of planning applications are refused. It is hardly inconceivable that one in ten planning applications may actually be bad enough to warrant refusal. As for house-building, if the planning system is such an obstacle why do the housebuilders have a quarter of a million permitted dwelling sites in the south-east alone that they have yet to build on?

The main constraints on development and thus growth are stagnating real incomes, the exhaustion of personal credit, the reluctance of banks to lend and the collapse of confidence in public policy on too many fronts to remember. If you underinvest for decades in competence and capacity in local and central government, you should not be completely surprised when it takes longer and longer to get anything at all done.

We know exactly what we need to do to generate growth and what is more, growth that would also be green. Investing in the infrastructure for a carbon-neutral resource-efficient economy will kick-start the growth that is currently missing and make our economy more resilient to the price shocks of an age of scarcity.

We need to spend many billions of pounds of public and private money on the grid enhancements, high-speed rail network, carbon capture and storage pipelines, distributed generation technologies, integrated recycling plants, energy efficiency improvements and electric vehicle charging networks that are the platforms for growth of the economy as a whole.

These investments would underpin national prosperity in the 21st century in exactly the way the motorway networks underpinned prosperity in the 20th century and the railways in the 19th century.

It is clear that the government has learned nothing about its own political heartlands from its recent searing experience with trying to sell the public forests. Whatever its actual intentions – which are likely to have been perfectly decent in the case of Greg Clarke – this policy proposal is now firmly cast, along with the Red Tape Challenge, as an ideologically driven sop to its business contributors.

Paradoxically, this sorry farrago is likely to be bad for growth and for business. This government has, until now, escaped any political backlash for taking forward the previous government’s policy on infrastructure planning. This is the planning that really matters for growth.

Now that the shires and the NGOs are fully aroused these waters are likely to become a lot more turbulent. The battering that the high-speed two (HS2) rail link is currently receiving is a harbinger of rows to come that will impede growth, some of which would be honestly green.

The current planning system, for all the frustration it causes to business leaders who are compelled to take the interests of others into account, was pretty predictable as the success rate of applications demonstrates. This predictability has now been removed.

Local communities and their allies in the pressure groups will now feel thoroughly entitled to use every possible opportunity to delay and defeat development projects they dislike. If you abandon a rules-based approach to life you should not be surprised when others feel that they no longer have to play by the rules.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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