Cameron's pro-growth reforms carry risks

The singling out of planning by the Prime Minister shows that more reform is inevitable, says Jamie Carpenter

The coalition is rumoured to be considering relaxing green belt restrictions
The coalition is rumoured to be considering relaxing green belt restrictions

Last weekend, the Prime Minister became the most senior member of the Government to attack the planning system.

Speaking at the Conservative Party's spring conference in Cardiff, David Cameron identified the "town hall officials who take forever with those planning decisions that can be make or break for businesses" as being among the "enemies of enterprise" that his Government would take on. His comments came just days after business secretary Vince Cable had told the City he had heard "countless stories of perfectly reasonable developments being thwarted by bizarre planning rules". He said: "We want the standard answer to be 'yes', not 'no'."

While some of the Government's own figures appear to contradict the pair's statements - for example, official statistics show that 85 per cent of planning applications were approved in 2009/10 - this emerging narrative could have far-reaching implications for planners. The fact that Cameron has joined other senior coalition figures in singling out the planning system as a barrier to growth indicates that further reform, on top of the measures currently going through Parliament in the Localism Bill, is inevitable. This process is likely to begin within weeks. On 23 March, chancellor George Osborne publishes his Budget, which Cameron says will "tear down the barriers to enterprise".

Osborne has already stated that his Budget will include funds for at least ten enterprise zones, which will aim to boost growth by introducing tax breaks and relaxing planning rules, despite questions over the effectiveness of the policy in the 1980s and 1990s. But how much further will the coalition be prepared to go in its bid to foster growth? The Government has confirmed that Cable is considering a system of "land auctions" that would replace the way planning permission is granted. And, according to some reports, the coalition could even be prepared to review rules restricting new building in green belts.

The cabinet's biggest beasts may now be convinced that one of the best ways to foster growth is to reduce democratic controls over development. But there are tensions between this approach and other key areas of coalition policy, including the localism agenda and the goal to be the "greenest government ever". The strategy also has dangers. Pressing ahead with a wider planning shake-up at a time when MPs are already debating major reforms set out in the  Localism Bill risks creating extra uncertainty for developers. In addition, Cameron's narrative ignores the key role that planners play in mediating between the needs of the private sector on the one hand, and local residents and the environment on the other. Tipping this balance too far in favour of business could have damaging effects., the website of Planning's sister title Regeneration & Renewal, has relaunched. The new-look website publishes daily breaking news on housing and regeneration, economic development and community renewal and includes an improved search function. Its content is available for free to Planning subscribers, who can access the site's archive, including Regeneration & Renewal special reports. Please let us know what you think.

Jamie Carpenter, deputy editor, Planning

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