Putting councils on the psychiatrist's couch, by Peter Bill

A sniffy email was received last month by an expert selected by government to advocate ways to smooth the passage of local plans.

The complainant was miffed by his omission from the eight-strong group, due to report in February. Actually, two useful experts have been omitted - US congressman Tim Murphy and psychologist Loriann Hoff Oberlin.

Flying the joint authors of Overcoming Passive-Aggression over for a consultation might prove a touch expensive. But the group's chairman, John Rhodes of planning consultancy Quod, should bill the taxpayer £79.92 for eight copies of their 2005 guide to a syndrome defined as "underlying fear and avoidance of direct conflict, yet a feeling of powerlessness and helplessness".

This is a neat description of the collective attitude of councils that have yet to finalise their local plans. You can't compare the plight of local planning departments to the suffering of medical staff on NHS wards. But both endure the same feelings of "powerlessness and helplessness" in the face of a constant barrage of government directives and accompanying press abuse.

The 119-page Housing and Planning Bill, published last week, gives communities secretary Greg Clark the usual stick used to beat councils: "If you don't do it, we will - and charge you for the privilege." Such half-empty threats rarely work well. Council reaction will be: "Good, let Whitehall take the blame. No votes in this for us. Passive-aggressive resistance to the last trench!"

Planning bills have to be written in legalese. But getting recalcitrant councils to play ball needs kinder language and a more cooperative attitude. One member of Rhodes' group feels an exploration of the psychological aspects of some councils' passive-aggressive attitude would be useful.

Who better than the government "nudge unit" to come up with psychologically informed ways to overcome the systemic passive-aggression that blights planning? The now privatised Behavioural Insights team of 60-odd mostly young and clever-looking staff have successfully changed attitudes at several Whitehall departments.

Their ultimate challenge surely awaits at the Department for Communities and Local Government, nudging both local and central government planners to stop being so bloody passive-aggressive to each other.

Part 1 of the new Housing and Planning Bill will need careful consideration by councils granting permission for Starter Homes. Clause 2(1)(c) says they are "to be sold at a discount of at least 20 per cent of the market value". No definition of "market value" is given. Please ensure that your lawyers nail down an exact meaning. Ensure this includes rights to appoint an independent valuer in case of dispute. Trust a housebuilder boasting "20 per cent off" about as much as the same sticker on a bunch of market-stall bananas.

Peter Bill is the author of Planet Property www.planet-property.net.


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