Recent government statements about planning have suggested that ministers see it as one of the biggest obstacles to growth in this country. "Where is there more red tape than in our planning laws?" chancellor George Osborne asked the Tory conference in October.
Lord Heseltine's 211-page report on the pursuit of growth, commissioned by the Prime Minister and published earlier this month, only dedicates four of its pages specifically to planning. But it echoes the severity of the chancellor's criticism.
Repeating a soundbite that Heseltine first uttered in 1979, the report says that "there are countless jobs tied up in the filing cabinets of the planning regime".
Heseltine's solution is to give planning authorities no more than six months to decide on applications. After that, the report says that the Planning Inspectorate would be given the power to call in the application. Indeed, one clause in the report suggests the referral to the inspectorate should be automatic. But a spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which housed the review team, said that the intention was for the inspectorate to judge when call-in would be appropriate.
To further accelerate decision-making, Heseltine would require councils that have taken more than three months to determine an application to publish a statement setting out the issues. He calls for the appeals process to be similarly altered: "Issues known and articulated after three months, decision after no more than six months."
As well as challenging development management teams to speed up, Heseltine suggests that their load could be eased by allowing licensed private sector operators to make some planning-related decisions on matters such as listed building consent. The government has recently consulted on similar proposals and decided not to proceed with them.
But Heseltine's suggestion is slightly different, proposing a "dual key" system, in which both applicants and private sector decision-makers would have to be licensed if the application was not to go through the usual local planning authority route. Government adviser English Heritage would also retain call-in powers on such applications.
Heseltine's enthusiasm for involving private planners in decision-making stems from a sceptical view of the "responsiveness and quality of advice" public sector planners offer. "If advice is sought from a private firm of consultants, a senior partner arrives within days and immediately indicates what will and will not be possible," says the report. "The local authority similarly consulted will often send a junior official who caveats everything they say with the fact that they are not empowered to make any decisions and warns that their advice might be incorrect or overruled."
But while Heseltine wants to streamline the development management system, he would also demand the return of strategic subregional planning. He proposes devolving around £12 billion a year of central government public spending to the public-private local enterprise partnerships that produce the most robust growth strategies for their subregions.
LEPs would be given additional funding to employ planning consultants to draw up the plans. This would be done "as part of a deliberate attempt to spread best practice, engage private sector expertise and avoid any LEPs being entirely dependent on the already stretched planning departments of the local authorities".
Responding to the report, Royal Town Planning Institute head of policy and practice Richard Blyth said that he was "disappointed" that Heseltine had repeated his "filing cabinets" comment from the 1970s.
"Planning departments have taken big strides in their administrative systems since then," he said.
But he applauded the report's call for planning to take place at a larger-than-local level, and its highlighting of the fact that no-one in government is tasked with looking holistically at the full range of issues facing a particular area. "It is welcome that someone of his kudos is putting his finger on that difficulty," he said.
Hugh Ellis, chief planner at campaign group the Town & Country Planning Association, also welcomed the focus on subregional strategic planning. But he said that Heseltine's proposals would not confer "public consent and legitimacy" on plans drawn up by unelected, business-chaired LEPs. "If they start making unpopular decisions, communities are going to start asking: 'Who are these people?'" said Ellis.
But Heseltine told Planning's sister title Regeneration & Renewal that his proposals ensured accountability. He said: "The LEPs can't make a bid without the approval of the local authority, because they're partners. And central government would not approve bids unless they're satisfied they meet their policy objectives. So you have got a twin accountability, democratic process".
Lord Heseltine is chair of Haymarket Group, which publishes Planning.
The study can be viewed via Planning Resource.co.uk/go/referencesection
Delivering economic growth is the theme of the Institute of Economic Development's annual conference, which takes place in Westminster on 27 November. The event is staged in association with Planning's sister title Regeneration & Renewal. Delegates will hear from:
- Local enterprise partnership chiefs, including LEP Network chair David Frost CBE
- BIS deputy director Sue Baxter on the new European funding landscape
- DCLG deputy director Katy Willison on the powers business rates reform will give to local authorities to drive economic growth.
For further details, please visit www.economicdevelopmentconference.com.