What Greg Clark's appointment as communities secretary means for planning

Greg Clark's replacement of Eric Pickles in the cabinet is likely to consolidate localism and leave a question mark over strategic planning, commentators have claimed.

Greg Clark (pic Rex Features)
Greg Clark (pic Rex Features)

The planning sector is expecting continuity of current planning policy after Greg Clark, the architect of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), replaced Eric Pickles as communities secretary. Pickles was the only Conservative secretary of state to be removed from the cabinet in Prime Minister David Cameron's reshuffle last week, following the departure of the Liberal Democrats from government and the first entirely Conservative administration in 18 years.

Clark will now head the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), where he previously served as planning and decentralisation minister from May 2010 to September 2012.

Hugh Ellis, head of policy at campaign group the Town and Country Planning Association, said: "He framed the debate on planning and localism, so he can hardly come in as a new broom - there is an element of taking responsibility for the effects of these policies."

A number of those who have previously worked with Clark paid tribute to his approach. Simon Marsh, head of planning policy at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, was one of four members of the practitioners' advisory group (PAG) that drafted the NPPF. He said: "Greg understands how the planning system works and its role in creating value for local economies."

Those developers and planners calling for more resources for council planning departments will also note that, in his last spell as planning minister, Clark was responsible for the only rise in planning fees to have been permitted in the last seven years.

However, some civil servants within DCLG may be less pleased to see the return of a familiar face. A report by think-tank the Institute for Government into the preparation of the NPPF said: "As it developed, the PAG were keen to see the draft published, as was Clark. There was inevitably some tension with DCLG officials, who traditionally would have been asked to draft the new policy framework themselves."

One senior planning source who did not want to be named said: "The idea that Clark is a moderate and wet is a bit wide of the mark. There is a machine behind him and he rubbed a few civil servants up the wrong way."

During his previous spell at the department, Clark also oversaw the introduction of the Localism Act 2011, which ushered in a new era of neighbourhood planning.

Gary Porter, leader of South Holland District Council and Local Government Association Conservative group leader, said: "Clark is committed to local planning and to councils determining the shape of their own destinies."

He now takes on responsibility for meeting the Conservative manifesto pledge to "ensure that local people have more control over planning". Some have suggested he might seek to do so by further bolstering the weight of neighbourhood plans. But others pointed out that, in his previous stint at DCLG, he was always clear about the neighbourhood plan's subordinate place in the plan hierarchy. "The primacy of the local plan is absolute," he said then.

At that time, he was also evangelistic about the profession prioritising plan-making over development control. "Planners in local authorities have been drawn into becoming advisers and arbitrators on development control," he said. "They have been aching to rediscover their role as planners, not people caught in the crossfire of litigation." He returns to find many English authorities with an adopted local plan, but 40 per cent still without.

After leaving the DCLG, Clark joined the Treasury, then the Cabinet Office, then the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, retaining responsibility for cities, regional growth and devolution throughout. He worked closely with Lord Heseltine and the cross-departmental Cities Policy Unit on the coalition's nascent devolution of powers and resources to cities. Ellis said in this period, Clark focused on "driving the devolution agenda rather than any planning one". But he consistently required city-regions that were seeking new powers to demonstrate sub-regional joint working. Some commentators have said this encouraged the Greater Manchester combined authority's publication for consultation of the first English statutory development plan for a city-region outside London since the abolition of the metropolitan counties in 1986.

The DCLG has also appointed James Wharton as minister to help implement the government's Northern Powerhouse policy, further details of which were outlined in a speech by chancellor George Osborne in Manchester last week. Ellis said: "The Treasury has everything in place now to drive the agenda to help northern cities get on with devolution. That is positive, although the Treasury has not always been the most thoughtful department in terms of how planning and placemaking can help drive economic growth."

He also welcomed the reappointment of Brandon Lewis as planning and housing minister, though he voiced concern that the DCLG would not strongly drive forward the garden city agenda and favour a policy of supporting large-scale but piecemeal development at the edge of cities.

Ellis added: "Continuity is to be welcomed, but so far, Lewis's role has been to help remove obstacles to existing plans such as in Ebbsfleet and Bicester, rather than come up with radical new plans for new garden cities. Clark is the architect of localism. Having invented neighbourhood planning, the idea that he should push us to think about strategic planning for new settlements seems inconceivable."

FIVE CONSERVATIVE MANIFESTO PLEDGES, AND WHAT THEY MIGHT MEAN

1. The party promised to ensure that local people have "more control" over planning. One commentator suggested that this is likely to indicate a continuation or even a strengthening of neighbourhood planning. "New communities and local government secretary Greg Clark is a localism zealot and will be very keen to try to ensure that the bottom-up planning he first envisaged five years ago is continued," said Ghislaine Halpenny, assistant director for planning at lobby group the British Property Federation. But she added that the commitment could also relate to the review of the community right to bid policy, which allows local people to bid for buildings that are important to them.

2. The manifesto pledged to ensure that local communities know upfront that necessary infrastructure will be provided when new homes are given permission. Halpenny suggested that this might relate to the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), the tariff used by councils to raise money for infrastructure. "There is a CIL review in the diary for this year, so you might find something emanating from that, which would encourage local authorities to deliver infrastructure, rather than just potentially sitting on any CIL money that comes in," she said. John Rhodes, director at planning consultancy Quod, said it would be sensible to review the CIL and ask whether revisions or more radical changes are needed to "place greater emphasis on the actual delivery of local infrastructure from the receipts".

3. It set out a commitment to ensure that 90 per cent of suitable brownfield sites have planning permission for housing by 2020. The government launched a consultation on brownfield development in January, proposing that councils could lose planning powers if they underperformed against this threshold. Under the plans, the government has said councils would be assessed on the extent to which formerly used land suitable for housing identified the previous year was covered by local development orders (see feature, p16).

4. The party said it would support locally led garden cities. Hugh Ellis, head of policy at campaign group the Town and Country Planning Association, said the government may continue with its existing approach to delivering garden cities, which he described as a "stuck sites campaign". Under this model, he explained, the government provides support to projects that have planning permission but haven't yet got off the ground. "That's the Ebbsfleet story, that's Bicester," he said. But Ellis said the government may also try to provide incentives for garden cities by offering councils a "range of financial packages", such as money for infrastructure.

5. It said it would "change the law so that local people have the final say on wind farm applications" 


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