The new trend for attacking planning

Pinning the blame on planners for stifling economic development fails to acknowledge the silent assistance that the sector gives to business, argues Tony Fyson

Cameron: Singling out the planning sector
Cameron: Singling out the planning sector

It is the planning world's habit to try to steer the Government towards rational and equitable policies for environmental change, so it is crucial that debate is focused as accurately as possible on the regime's intentions. These have suddenly become a lot more contradictory, with twin attacks on planning heightening the atmosphere of hostility.

So far, the emphasis has been on localism and the Big Society, with rumblings of discontent from business people at the prospect of local resistance blocking development and from planners questioning the legitimacy of self-selected groups making plans. The Government has countered that empowering informal neighbourhood forums would permit local people to influence the detailed location of development identified in local plans.

Then last weekend came a salvo of pronouncements from the coalition's biggest guns, who appear to be persuaded that relinquishing control over local development would obstruct the achievement of the Government's growth imperatives. Planning has been singled out as the chief bureaucratic obstacle to enterprise. Chancellor George Osborne was reported as saying that he wants to make it easier for companies to obtain planning consent for new projects "even if they go against the wishes of local residents". No endorsement was forthcoming from localism champion Eric Pickles.

But the most direct attack came from business secretary Vince Cable, who told a Mansion House banquet that the planning system has become "a major barrier not only to social mobility but to business expansion". Undeflected by any distinction between a system and the policies pursued or neglected through it, Cable repeated familiar Tory complaints about "slow and prescriptive planning" as a "particular impediment to growth".

There is apparently to be even less relief from this kind of smear under the coalition than under Margaret Thatcher. Nor will there be any more understanding of the often unpublicised assistance that business receives from planners, not least in the struggle to improve our infrastructure. Nor will there be any mention of the dedicated skills needed to ensure that social fairness and environmental quality are considered as plans are drawn up and decisions reached. Instead, Cable contends that planning usually offers a "standard 'no' answer" and that, by implication, there is no virtue in protecting the quality of the environment, whether it supports society or nature. His claim that he and Pickles are "as one" in their desire for communities to benefit from growth skirts unconvincingly around their disagreement about the means to this end. Their agreement lies only in a hostility to planning.

The situation is all the stranger because it came in the same week the Government closed its consultation on the proposed national planning policy framework, intended to replace all current policy and guidance documents. David Cameron and his belligerent team unanimously favour development that is "sustainable", but dismally fail to indicate how abandonment of detailed policy regulation will ensure that outcome.

Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues.

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