Planning must be truly democratic

Tony Fyson looks at the real effect of coalition reforms and asks whether they go far enough to rebuild the economy

Tony Fyson: "The danger of devolving planning powers to local level is that those with public benefit far from their agendas will take advantage". David Devins photo
Tony Fyson: "The danger of devolving planning powers to local level is that those with public benefit far from their agendas will take advantage". David Devins photo

The bleak economic outlook is not confined to countries in the Eurozone. Those they trade with are seriously threatened too. The government knows this and last week Prime Minister David Cameron managed to focus on building up exports - in contrast to the chancellor's instinctive urge to add the Euro chaos to the banking disaster and the financial deficit as excuses for delay to the country's promised economic recovery. These are fateful days indeed - internationally, nationally and locally.

Every month that passes strengthens the opposition's contention that cutting public spending too far, too fast and relying on private enterprise to generate jobs while the public sector shrinks is inhibiting the longed-for upturn. But there are indications that the government is shifting its position. There is a new emphasis on major infrastructure development.

The principle of "putting them on public works" as a way of recovering from a jobs slump applies, whether funding is public or private. The government claims that its commitment of £1.4 billion from the new Regional Growth Fund to areas that are "over-dependent" on the public sector will unlock nearly £8.5 billion of private sector investment, "potentially creating or safeguarding" 325,000 jobs.

This represents a crude sort of nationally generated regional economic planning. But it is still planning and it needs defined geographical expression backed by a democratic mandate. Ironically, the point is accepted in the Localism Bill, even though it abolishes regional strategies. The bill is now ready for royal assent and in one respect strengthens government's role: the major infrastructure planning unit to be created in the Planning Inspectorate will pass final decisions to ministers.

Claiming that there is now considerable political consensus about the bill, decentralisation minister Greg Clark said the government "wants more planning not less" and that "over time, imposition from above has stood in the way of local communities expressing their own vision of the future". Those defending the Chiltern Hills from the favoured route for the nation's second high-speed rail line will not be appeased.

More encouragingly, Clark chose to emphasise the importance of sustainable development, pointing out that local plans have to serve this purpose and that the duty to cooperate between public bodies should also serve sustainability. It remains to be seen whether local activists or other interests looking to prepare neighbourhood plans will prove capable of meeting the new duty to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development. It will certainly depend on government coming up with a satisfactory definition of the term, which is now promised for April next year in the final version of the National Planning Policy Framework.

Public reaction to neighbourhood planning provisions will vary. Dynamic communities will act while elsewhere people will exercise their right to rely on their elected representatives. The danger is that other interests with public benefit far from their agendas will also take advantage.

Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues and TCPA trustee.

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