Easy fixes for planning vexations

A few simple changes to the planning system could make all the difference to the caseload of planners, says John Gummer

John Gummer
John Gummer

The Localism Bill should now be through the House of Lords and we await the results of the consultation on the draft National Planning Policy Framework. In this temporary pause, it might be as well to suggest some simple changes that could be made to the planning system that ought not to excite great unrest but that would remove some of the most pervasive annoyances. The first of these is the way we deal with conservation areas and listed buildings.

Planners cannot know everything and yet some give exactly that impression. There is something very galling to an architect and his client who are both well-versed in, say, the buildings of Sir John Vanbrugh, the designer of Blenheim Palace, to be told by someone far less expert that a detail should be replaced by something that is clearly not in keeping. Experienced planners may believe such things do not happen, but my postbag and personal observation show otherwise.

Why do we not take the whole listed building system out of local authority control and allow the Royal Institute of British Architects to certify conservation architects, within suitable expert and professional limits? They would then be responsible for insisting on listing requirements and preparing and overseeing plans to protect the architectural integrity of the buildings on which they are working.

It would be their responsibility to appoint a suitable and competent builder. English Heritage could carry out random inspections and there would be draconian punishments, such as life delisting, for those who fail to uphold the highest professional standards. Listed building issues would then be decided by experts.

I would actually suggest taking that a stage further by insisting that the owners of a listed building should have the right to ask for a detailed list setting out the features for which the house was listed and to which proper attention must be given. All other features would be subject to ordinary planning laws.

A second simple step would be to repeal the law that says that planning permission is needed when a field is taken into a garden. There can be no justification for the council having a say in a natural exercise of freedom. I want a larger garden. I buy a field and add it to my grounds. Why should that be a matter for anyone else?

A third and larger step would be to exempt owners of houses built since 1945 from having to gain planning permission for extensions. Listed buildings and those in conservation areas would be excluded, but elsewhere the owner would just need to give a month's notice to his neighbours and to the council before starting work. If neighbours objected and the council thought the objection reasonable, they would appoint an arbitrator whose decision would be final. Again, planners would not be involved but instead left to get on with their real and important job.

John Gummer, Lord Deben was formerly MP for Suffolk Coastal and was environment secretary from 1993 to 1997.

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