GUMMER ON: The necessity for greater planning enthusiasm

A curiously complacent attitude is apparent on the planning front.

It seems that most have allowed themselves to be lulled into a belief that because we have a new planning bill before parliament, it must mean that the planning situation will improve. I am not so sanguine. At the heart of the bill is an unresolved dilemma. The government has promised to make more people feel that they have greater access to the planning process and to reassure business that the system will be much quicker.

This always was a contradictory stance and nothing has happened to suggest otherwise.

The truth is that every aspect of planning is now unacceptably prolonged.

The cost that delay incurs is a significant impost on growth in the economy, and the awful fact is that local authorities still do not seem to understand why that matters. Last week, one London borough delivered the final version of a section 106 agreement that has taken ten months to complete in a form that is fundamentally indistinguishable from the first draft agreed nearly a year ago. Officers are unrepentant, members are unaware, and so the rest of us pay for the low standards that some councils still accept as the norm. In a case like this, the developer has wasted hundreds of thousands of pounds in interest paid or profit forgone, simply because a public authority has not sufficient interest in service delivery. We all pay for this in terms of rents and house prices.

Even the best authorities show little of the urgency that ought to attend the planning process. There is none of the thrill or enthusiasm for getting a new development through in record time, for enabling business to prosper more rapidly and grow more immediately. Indeed, it sometimes feels as if councils see themselves as a necessary block on enterprise. Some even seem to positively dislike the private sector and view it only as a means to achieve their public sector ends. They are unmoved by the fact that only a vibrant economy with expanding businesses can create the jobs and wealth upon which the public sector depends. It isn't just what they get from section 106 agreements - it's what the whole community gets from each growing business.

I always thought that this situation would improve and that planners would see the need to be more efficient and more enthusiastic about development and growth. But I was wrong. Almost everywhere, the process is immensely long-winded and expensive. We need a new spirit if developers are going to meet Britain's housing and commercial needs. Planning must become development enabling, not controlling. Sadly, the bill before parliament does little to promote that fundamental change.


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