Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Thoughts on the planning system....

I was thinking today - in one of those idle moments - why it is that we are so conflicted about ownership. And, more importantly, why we persist in the almost feudal belief that ownership is a permission rather than a right.

Except of course that, in the case of real estate and related property rights, this is the case. We are, de facto, serfs and have been since 1947:

In 1947 the Town & Country Planning Act was published, providing the first comprehensive basis for the control of development and land uses in this country. Before 1947 the use of land and development was largely uncontrolled, although some limitations were exercised through Public Health and local Acts.

The 1947 Act introduced a comprehensive system for the control of development and since then (with some specific exceptions) no land owner has been entitled to carry out any development without first obtaining the necessary planning permission.

You can only make use of your real estate property with the permission of government. Only those uses that our masters permit are allowed. And the government can (and does) act precipitously, aggressively and arbitrarily to enforce its feudal authority over our land.

While other parts of the 1945-1950 Labour Government's attempts to enforce socialism through fiat are gradually being dismantled (the nationalisation of industry, elements of the "welfare state", the assumptions of free care and so on), nobody - not even the most swivel-eyed right winger - is questioning whether we should start to dismantle the "planning system".

The current coalition government is saying that its "open source planning" proposals represent a dramatic and radical shift in the planning system. Which at one level is true - the 'regional' agenda is removed and greater 'community engagement' is promised. But the truly radical change - a real presumption in favour of development - is nowhere to be seen. Planners will still cling to their authoritarian powers to direct the uses of our land and can still, at the stroke of a pen, turn someone from a pauper to a plutocrat. And they love it - and hate any diminution of their power:

The Institute said it was particularly concerned that the government’s proposals to abolish regional planning – contained in the proposed Decentralisation and Localism Bill – are based mainly on an objection to imposed regional housing targets rather than to the principle of strategic planning.

The RTPI added that it “strongly advocates” the need for strategic-level planning that co-ordinates development and infrastructure between different areas, provides a wide range of environmental policies, and ensures that the needs of the wider than local community are properly addressed.

You can't just let people decide for themselves what to do with land - it might not be 'strategic' (whatever that may mean)! The truth is that these powers, linked to what the Yanks call 'eminent domain' and we call 'compulsory purchase', provide government with the ability to confiscate land for almost any purpose.

Giving local places more controls is a real step forward - and the 'community right to build' (the 'thin end of the wedge' as I heard one planner call it) allows communities to make development choices themselves rather than allowing the planners to make their random, arbitrary 'strategic' choices. But we need to go further - to really trust local places to discuss, debate and negotiate development between landowners, builders and the people whose amenity is directly affected by that development. Without the expensive, rules-bound, legalistic planning system to prevent sensible, locally-supported developments proceeding.

I spend more time arguing for flexibility in 'green belt' controls - to permit farm conversions, to allow holiday lets, to facilitate modern farming practice and to let landowners make careful, supported decisions about sensitive landscape - than I do "defending" that green belt from rapacious developers.

Perhaps what we need is a real local 'tribunal' process - with our without us councillors - that arbitrates between the landowner's rights and the rights of those affected by development. All the volumes of planning guidance (or "statements" as they now are) do not help this process - they merely act as a barrier. This isn't an argument for scrapping planning but a case for trusting local people and the people they elect to make the right decisions - free from lawyers, planners and inspectors.


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