Martin Wolf is one of the world’s most trusted, authoritative and influential economic commentators. A central reason for his ascent to such a height has been the rigour of his thinking. He is, above all, the champion of public policy based on evidence rather than anecdote or prejudice.
It is particularly disappointing therefore to read him parroting the vacuous simplicities of the Chancellor on the planning system. In his otherwise typically perceptive analysis of the budget on March 21st he praised the Chancellor for ‘the proposed change in planning laws, to introduce a presumption in favour of development’ which would, he argued, be ‘valuable.’ He is wrong.
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 ever 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 house builders have a quarter of a million permitted dwelling sites in the south-east alone that they have yet to build on?
Replacing 1,000 pages of detailed guidance with 50 pages of ambiguous text will not be good for the growth of anything other than the income of lawyers at the planning bar. The courts will be even slower and less predictable than planning officers in resolving difficult issues. Development will be slowed, not accelerated.
The main constraints on growth and thus development are stagnating real incomes, the exhaustion of personal credit and the reluctance of banks to lend. Exactly the kind of evidence Martin Wolf has so often used to explain our stagnating economy.
If you under invest 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.