Javid and Barwell hit the right note with early pronouncements, by Richard Garlick

The new leadership of the Department of Communities and Local Government has struck a refreshingly pragmatic and fair-minded note with its early pronouncements on planning.

Planning authorities had grown accustomed to being characterised as "enemies of enterprise" by David Cameron and his government, to be sided against in the battle to free developers to meet the country’s housing needs.

Whatever the faults of the planning system that the previous government inherited, and without denying that some of Cameron’s planning ministers made important improvements to it, they often seemed so preoccupied with finding new planning reforms that other key obstacles to development were ignored.

In contrast, communities secretary Sajid Javid and planning minister Gavin Barwell have shown political courage in identifying a broader range of participants in the planning process who need to change their behaviour. Yes, Barwell has warned that he intends to use his power to intervene to tackle slow-acting local planning authorities. But he has also assured councils that he intends to help address the capacity constraints that slow down their planning work. Equally importantly, Javid and Barwell are applying pressure to applicants as well as authorities.

Javid used the Conservative party conference this week to tell developers that "it’s time to stop sitting on landbanks and delaying build-out". Barwell has also told developers that they "need to up their game", saying that they may be required to provide timetables for building out consented schemes, and that their track record in building out permissions could be taken into account when considering their planning applications.

Importantly, both ministers also have acknowledged the frequent complicity of politicians in ducking difficult decisions. Javid said councillors and MPs "must be prepared to make difficult calls, even if they are unpopular". In an interview with Planning in this issue, Barwell warns MPs and councillors that they may be wasting their time if they ask him to call in speculative applications in areas lacking a local plan with a five year housing land supply.

Likewise, Barwell’s determination to maximise housing delivery across all tenures seems undogmatic compared to the previous administration’s fixation with owner-occupation. Similarly, for a sector that has become accustomed to a never-ending churn of piecemeal planning change, the promised housing white paper at least holds out the prospect of a proper opportunity to discuss forthcoming proposed reforms in the round before they are enacted.

Of course, it is easier to impress people at the start of a new job than later on, when they have a track record to examine. Javid and Barwell are saying very encouraging things. But, of course, it remains to be seen whether they will be able to find effective ways of accelerating developers’ build-out of consents, or if they can effectively take over tardy councils’ plan-making, or whether they will really reject colleagues’ overtures to call in politically awkward applications. But the tone that they have struck at the start of their tenure is very welcome.

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning // richard.garlick@haymarket.com


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