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Change of Plan?

Change of Plan?There's a quiet - and very worrying - national change that's going on right now in the background of what most people call 'planning'

And it has a weaker local echo.

Until recently, the name that Fylde (and most other Councils) called the planning process was 'Development Control.'

Fylde has just renamed it to 'Development Management'

It's the process that decides where houses and shops and factories and schools and parks and so on, are going to be.

Reviewing the name changes over time illustrates what's going on over the longer term, and, indeed, it shows the national trend.

It used to be 'planning' because it was the Council's job to plan, - to look at its area and, using a foundation of local views, it would decide where things were to go.

There would be a 'Local Plan' with a 'Proposals Map' on which officers would work out and *propose* the land use layout for the next 20 years or so of their area.

It allowed them typically to, say, choose some land for a new park or open space and to zone development areas around it and schools and health facilities and pubs and shops and so on, in a pro-active 'planned' manner.

Developers would then acquire the land around the park and would build their houses and make a contribution to the community facilities so that when all the surrounding houses and offices and whatever were completed, you had in effect a series of villages arranged round a green area - albeit that there may be several such villages that morphed seamlessly into a town or larger unit.

Then came Margaret Thatcher's advocation of free market principles for more or less everything, and Michael Heseltine's (in our view disastrous) reversal of the tried and tested planning system, where he reversed the responsibility for proactive planning by Councils, and made it a re-active service so that developers chose where they wanted to build.

The Council's job became to control that development - so it's worst excesses didn't do too much harm.

Heseltine created the doctrine that came to be known as the 'presumption in favour of development'

This gave developers more control over development - perhaps in a similar way that bankers have been allowed to assume control over our money - and Councils were left to try and regulate land use - by showing why, in some places, the presumption in favour should be constrained, or not allowed at all for some particular reason.

'Development Control' had arrived

And we're now about to see the start of 'Development Management'.

This is being sold to elected councillors on the basis of it being a simple name change that is just the modern way of saying it.

We heard Cllr Fiddler (who knows much better) say exactly that at Fylde recently, as he asked councillors to support a Committee name change to 'Development Management Committee'.

Today, it will make no difference at all, but it signals another shift in the direction of travel that 'planning' is going.

In future, we won't be controlling development. We will be managing it.

The short term implication is that 'managing' is likely to be more to do with helping things to come about. It's job is to make things happen and not so much to stop or regulate them.

The long term implication of this direction is that communities will have less and less say over development.

But there is an even bigger change afoot nationally. One that risks unsettling and upsetting communities up and down the land.

In the feverish (and for us welcome) changes to Local Government immediately after the national election, we were happy to laud (and indeed beatify)  Eric Pickles to the status of 'Saint Eric' for the moves he made.

This was a man that cut his teeth in Local Government. He understands it. He knows how it works. He has, as they say, 'worked at the factory'. He also has an uncanny knack of being able to understand the needs and concerns of 'the man on the Clapham Omnibus'. He is in tune with popular opinion and he is a robust and able politician.

In our opinion, some of his most important changes are set out in the Localism Bill which he was driving.

And a big part of that sought to demolish the idea of 'top down' planning. It set out proposals to implement planning from a local grassroots level upward.

Neighbourhoods would decide what they wanted. People would be in control of their areas.

The Regional Spatial Strategies were abolished - or at least heralded for abolition, and developers were being told it was the Council's local plan - framed around the wishes of local people - that counted now. The Local Plan was to be paramount.


All going swimmingly.

Until George Osborne's Mansion House speech, that is.

And what's that got to do with it you might ask? That's a financial thing isn't it?

Well; yes, and no. It's where planning and finance were set on a collision course.

Having pulled most, if not all, of the Government's levers of financial control to get the country's finances sorted out, nothing has worked as they wanted.

To be fair, this is probably because the financial crisis in 'Europe' and the US - which has just had yet another sticking plaster applied over its gaping wounds, and a hefty dose of tranquiliser to calm things down and stop us worrying about the real cause for a bit longer.

So, in the UK, when: reducing interest rates to near zero; and letting inflation rip; and cutting public spending quite strongly; and increasing taxes; and forging unimaginably huge amounts of money out of thin air to (supposedly) slosh into the economy (the so called 'Quantative Easing' scheme) didn't make things better, George Osborne had to look elsewhere.

What he found, of course, was growth. And part of growth means development.

Under a socialist government this would usually mean a big programme of public works. It would mean borrowing even more money to build hospitals, schools, roads, and other essential infrastructure.

This process of civil engineering gets construction companies (and their long, and employee-rich supply chains) working. That increases employment and wealth (or at least it gives an illusion of increased wealth), and the country starts to get 'back on its feet' (actually it only appears to get us back on our feet. - however, since we're already heading dangerously off-track, so we won't go there)

But there are problems - (even IF the coalition had the will to do this civil engineering).

We're maxed-out on the national credit card, and we've taken all the equity out of the national mortgage. We're even borrowing from other countries just to be able to pay the interest due on the money that other countries have previously lent us.

So the idea of 'growth through public works' is down the pan.

Our readers will guess that our choice would be to head into deeper public spending cuts - and particularly deeper cuts in the cash we send to help run 'Europe'. We'd also be telling the banking industry to put its house in order and contribute properly to the damage their short termism slicing and dicing did to this country and its people.

So we wouldn't be looking at a stimulus to provoke illusory growth at all.

When your problem is that you're spending too much, the answer is to cut back on spending, not to try and get a second job or do more overtime - that only treats the symptoms of the problem, not the cause.

But Government is afraid to treat the cause, because we're now so far gone that to do so, would make the recent riots look like a kindergarten.

So, stimulus it looks like it will be.

If that's the case, what sort of stimulus can George Osborne give to get construction and development moving to create employment and that elusive feeling of growing 'wealth' (which, in reality, is nothing more than institutionalised inflation that will come back to bite us)?

How can they get growth moving without any money?

Answer = They can indulge in some rape and pillage of England's green and pleasant land.

They can squash St Eric's plan to put local people in charge of their community.

Cue what (to us) looks like pressure having been applied to (even the eminently robust) St Eric's Communities and Local Government Department, and up pops a new 'Draft Planning Policy Framework for Growth'.

Which, for all the world looks like a top down plan.

Exactly what St Eric said he wouldn't have - and (to misquote another of our heroes), up with which we should not have to put.

If it is implemented, this new plan expects to cut the existing 1,000 pages of national planning policy down to just 50 pages. It says it aims to simplify and make the planning process more accessible for councillors and the public, rather than just planning experts.

When you hear quotes like that coming out of the mouths of politicians as the reason for change, you can start to be very afraid.

This plan is out to public consultation for the next three months (at the present time anyone can follow this link to see it, and make comment on it if they wish. If you feel able, we suggest you do).

It focuses on using planning to push what it calls 'sustainable development', including attracting growth and business, and creating the infrastructure for a growing population, all, supposedly, without damaging the environment.

Yeah, right.

Planning Minister Greg Clark said: 'If a proposed development is sustainable, it should be approved without delay'.

Isn't he the man who is piloting the Localism Bill through Parliament?

Isn't the declared aim of that Bill "... by pushing power out, getting the Government out of the way and letting people run their own affairs, we can build a stronger, fairer Britain. We can restore civic pride, rebuild democratic accountability, promote economic growth and replace big government with the big society."

Well, we can, except when it interferes with plans to 'build your way out of trouble' it would seem.

The widely, and well respected, Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), whose comments are normally measured, (or even reserved), says

"CPRE believes that the Government is risking an environmental disaster - and many battles with local communities - by putting the economic aims of the planning system ahead of its social and environmental purposes. This is despite the fact that the same Government has recently published a White Paper on the natural environment that sets out a vision for protecting and restoring the countryside on a large scale. Ministers need to decide where their priorities lie."

Their Chief Executive, Shaun Spiers concluded: "The 'growth at any cost' stance promoted by some within the Government places our countryside in enormous danger. It risks undermining Ministers' own stated ambition in the Natural Environment White Paper to protect our natural assets much better"

Unlike most folk (who are less close to what is going on), CPRE has seen the light. They know where this is going, and are mobilising to fight it.

And so they should. Here are a few quotes from the new National Planning Framework

"Development means growth. We must accommodate the new ways by which we will earn our living in a competitive world"

"Development that is sustainable should go ahead, without delay - a presumption in favour of sustainable development that is the basis for every plan, and every decision. This framework sets out clearly what could make a proposed plan or development unsustainable."

"The purpose of the planning system is to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development. Sustainable development means development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs"

We'd take strong issue with that one. The purpose of the planning system is to balance competing priorities and mitigate the harm that an otherwise completely free-market in development would create. We've seen something like that in this country. It's called Essex. And it's awful.

"..use the planning system to build a strong, responsive and competitive economy, by ensuring that sufficient land of the right type, and in the right places, is available to allow growth and innovation;"

"The Government is committed to ensuring that the planning system does everything it can to support sustainable economic growth. A positive planning system is essential because, without growth, a sustainable future cannot be achieved."

"Planning must operate to encourage growth and not act as an impediment. Therefore, significant weight should be placed on the need to support economic growth through the planning system."

"All plans should be based upon and contain the presumption in favour of sustainable development as their starting point"

And at this point, we're only on page 4 out of 50.

It doesn't get any better.

Just as a terrorist and a freedom fighter are the opposite sides of the same coin, so this awful proposal has two faces.

It pays lip service to environmental, social, and heritage concerns, but it's tone throughout is about using the planning system to support economic growth, and therein lies it's dichotomy so well identified by CPRE.

Having politicians ease the shackles on development to allow the rape of our countryside to assuage the greed of the banking industry - which politicians themselves failed to regulate or curb sufficiently in the first place - is a price that Middle England will not be prepared to pay.

Especially not when they have already been told they're going to have more control themselves

Government needs to drop the stupidity of this plan.

It needs to put George Osborne back in his financial box, and leave it to St Eric to complete the Localism plans.

When people wake up to what is happening there will be great anger.

Locally, we could hear the start of that anger appear quite soon, as Fylde publishes the number of dwellings it expects to give planning permission (or should that be Development Management permission?) for in the coming 15 years or so.

We hear it's not likely to be a popular figure.

Dated:  15 August 2011


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