Why a proposal to cut out councillors from planning decision-making is unlikely to be taken forward

Among the radical proposals to reshape the planning system from an influential think tank, a recommendation to remove councillors from making decisions is unlikely to gain much traction with ministers, say observers.

Development: Policy Exchange report backed zonal approach to planning
Development: Policy Exchange report backed zonal approach to planning

It was certainly eye-catching. Last week, free market think tank Policy Exchange published a new report entitled Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century, which advocated nothing short of a "clean break" with the current process. The planning system, the report said, "has little relevance to the country’s 21st century liberalised economy and a society facing continuous change".

The report made a series of radical suggestions to change the planning system, including the introduction of a "binary zonal land use planning system" and a national review of green belt (see panel below). Perhaps most controversially, the report recommended "streamlining the role of local politicians". The rules contained in local plans would be controlled by local authorities with appropriate political oversight, but once a local plan is in place, determining individual planning applications should be an administrative process without political influence. "[Councillors] should have no say over deciding applications for new developments," the report said.

Despite their revolutionary nature, there are reasons to take the recommendations seriously. Firstly, an article in The Times at the time of its publication said the report is being "seriously looked at" by the No 10 policy unit. It said ministers were "keen to pursue an early 'radical reform' of the system that has largely been unaltered since the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947".

Moreover, Policy Exchange has had a significant influence on planning policy since the Tory-led coalition government came to power in 2010. Office-to-residential permitted development rights, self-builders' 'right to build' and passing a proportion of community infrastructure receipts to community groups are among some of their ideas that have made it into national policy. The former planning minister Nick Boles was one of the think-tank’s co-founders in 2002, while its ex-housing and planning lead Alex Morton became an advisor to David Cameron on housing and planning in 2013.

Planning tried to contact Policy Exchange to discuss the report but received no response by the time of publication. Toby Lloyd, ex-No 10 housing advisor and former Shelter policy lead, said he did not believe the report's "provocative" recommendations would be that influential with ministers, in contrast to the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission report which was published last week.

However, Roger Hepher, director at planning consultancy hgh Consulting, said he would not be surprised to see some of the report's ideas floated in the government's forthcoming Planning White Paper, although he is dubious that restricting the role of councillors in the planning process would get much further than that.

"We do have a government with a sizeable majority and seemingly is willing to make radical changes," he said. "But I can imagine howls of protest and ultimately some backing away. It sounds to me like one of those ideas that might get floated in the white paper and the government would then wait and see what the reaction is. I imagine they would get quite a lot of negative reaction and there would then be some strategic retreating."

Chris Rumfitt, founder and chief executive at public affairs firm Field Consulting, is even more circumspect. "I’m sceptical about the idea that you would take councillors out of individual planning decisions would ever make it through as a policy," he said. "They’re your foot soldiers in all your local elections and you’re going to take away one of their biggest areas of power? I just don’t buy it."

Commentators felt that the proposed introduction of a zoning system may get further. The report called for land to be zoned "either as development land, where a presumption in favour of new development would apply, or non-development land, where no presumption would apply and minor development would only be allowed in limited circumstances.

Within development zones, the report says, there would be no restrictions on land uses on privately owned plots and "land and buildings in the urban area would then be able to change use without requiring the permission of the state", subject to certain restrictions. Local plans, meanwhile, "should set a limited and simple set of development control rules detailing what development is not acceptable in development zones and a similar set of rules detailing what development is acceptable in non-development zones".

"There certainly could be something in a zonal approach that gives more certainty to applicants and protects land that councils don’t want developed," said Rumfitt. "But I don’t think the government would go as far as what Policy Exchange is suggesting."

Five key recommendations in the report

  • "Streamlining" the role of local politicians, with councillors having "no say over deciding applications for new developments". Rules in local plans should be "controlled by local authorities", but this "should be the only stage in the planning system when local politicians have a say". Deciding applications for new developments "should be a purely administrative exercise checking the proposal conforms to local rules".
  • The government should introduce "a binary zonal land use planning system" and end "detailed land use allocations". The "supply of new homes, offices and other types of land use should no longer be capped by local planning authorities in local plans or by site allocations,". "Land should be zoned either as development land, where there is a presumption in favour of new development, or non-development land, where there is not a presumption and minor development is only possible in more restricted circumstances."
  • Local plans "should set a limited and simple set of development control rules detailing what development is not acceptable in development zones and a similar set of rules detailing what development is acceptable in non-development zones".
  • Communities in development zones "should have the power to set development rules for new development in their area" but "should not determine the fact of development".
  • Green belt protections "should be reviewed to clarify what purpose they are supposed to be serving and whether it is still justified".

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