The planning manifesto issued last week by the British Property Federation (BPF) is, of course, a self-serving document with an emphasis on speeding planning processes, often by privatising them. It advocates making hard-pressed councils dependent on developer-applicants for some staff costs and training in development economics.
As a trade body for landlords, investors and agents, the BPF is blithely dismissive of concerns about public probity and construes culture change in planning as the promotion of commercial development, for which authorities need to be "incentivised".
So far, so predictable. But this is not a useless document. It does very well to flag up matters that the government needs to tackle with both commercial and public interests in mind. The two are not always identical, even though the BPF may like to think that they are.
Nevertheless, it makes a valid point in its introduction by saying that changing the planning system any more is neither desirable nor necessary. It rightly leads with concern about lack of resources and skills and the negative effect of the prevalent target culture.
There follow 12 punchily written points, most of which warrant some endorsement or consideration. Recruitment and retention of planners, councillor training, pooling specialist resources and the burdensome amount of information required from applicants surely need tackling.
Statutory consultees should certainly respond to a set timetable and planning performance agreements could be more widely used. There is also an intriguing allusion to "tax increment funding" districts as used in the USA to apply local property taxes directly to necessary new infrastructure.
Apart from an unjustified faith in the efficacy of outsourcing, the assertion that deserves the deepest debate is that planners should devote themselves to high-level strategic issues while less-qualified bureaucrats do the dogsbody development control and enforcement. With this beginning to become the de facto situation in many departments, some planners are inclined to accept it.
They should beware of allowing a wedge to be driven between complementary aspects of the public planning service and accepting the assumption that there is no need for staff with a key public relations role to have a full understanding of the policies they administer. This downgrading of development control diminishes the likelihood of senior staff gaining rounded experience as their careers progress and has major implications for public appreciation of what planning is about.
- Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues.