Since Nicholas Ridley was Secretary of State in the late 80’s there has been a clamour at ministerial level for reform of the planning system. This has primarily focused on the ‘processes’ associated with the planning system. Many of the reforms Central Government have put forward have just made the system less understandable and diminished its standing.
Local authority planning is being kicked from all sides, for being a problem that is inhibiting investment, probably with some justification. It is not a good place to work for many despite some fantastic officers.
With our combined 70 years in public and private sectors we have seen the planning system from both the local government perspective (Kevin was in local government planning for 35 years) and the private sector. We agree that the current delivery of the planning system in local government is either broken or breaking; depending on where you are.
We believe that reform therefore needs to look at ‘how’ we are delivering planning. Underpinning this is that a career in planning in local government needs to be seen as credible and meaningful option. We are proposing 4 key changes to ‘how’ the system currently works:
  1. Regional Mayors and Planning Appeals – planning is too centralised. If its going to be genuinely democratic regional mayors should be given the powers to make the final decisions on planning appeals in their jurisdiction, after the Planning Inspectorate has recommended. England is not a homogenised entity; it varies greatly, and local democratic decision making should be at the heart of the final outcomes in the planning process. The electorate would then have a direct democratic relationship with the decision maker and so does the development industry. We also feel decisions by Mayor’s should ultimately be quicker than Ministers, where appeals sit too long in their pending trays. Perhaps regional rationale could also therefore be considered within any decisions.
  2. Reform Planning Committee’s at Council’s –the Planning Committee structure is democratic and this balance should remain so. However, Committee’s reflect the demographic of elected councillors, which all too often are unrepresentative of wider society (LGA – national census of local authority councillors, 2022: The average age of councillors in 2022 was 59.5 years old, similar to that over the 2006- 2018 period. The proportion aged under 45 was 15.7 per cent in 2022, while 42.2 per cent were aged 65 or over. Additionally, councillors often lack the experience, skills and knowledge of the implications of the planning decision making process. Too often Elected Members ‘play’ to a small, local minority of vocal electors i.e. politics. Committee’s need to have more balance and represent wider constituents in the community.
Committee’s should reflect better good practice from Board structures in the private sector and have suitably qualified, skilled people co-opted onto the Committee.
Committee’s should be limited to a maximum of nine voting members. They should include the most senior planning officer in the local authority, with an appropriate planning qualification, as a member and also we believe senior representative from both the local voluntary and business sectors (eg we would suggest the local Chamber of Commerce for the latter). Elected councillors would therefore still have a clear majority on Committee but there would be an opportunity for a better skills base.
Additionally, the governance / membership of planning Committee’s should be subject to basic qualitative standards to ensure its more representative of a community in the likes of gender and age.
  1. Resource local government planning departments – austerity has had a major adverse impact on many local authority planning departments, not only in terms of capacity but also the skill and experience. Many of the over 55’s have departed and recruitment into local authorities for qualified planners is reportedly difficult. We therefore would recommend:
  2. a ring fenced budget for both development management and development planning, set on a formulaic basis for each local authority;
  3. merge planning services of local authorities whose population base is less than 200,000, as these sized authorities invariably don’t have the critical mass of resources to enable them to deliver an effective and skilled planning service.
  4. Accountability for statutory consultees – too often planning officers are hiding behind the views of statutory consultees or that there are protracted delays as a consequence of statutory consultees not responding quickly enough to the planning referrals. The officers of statutory consultees are themselves difficult to access. This is a major problem. These ‘Quangos’ are invariably remote and unaccountable; applying national circumstances and guidance alien to local circumstances. They are another appendage of Central Government delay and control.
We therefore recommend that if statutory consultees object to a planning application, they should be mandatorily obliged to attend the relevant Planning Committee and present their case and be available for questioning. A nonresponse to consultation, within 21 days, from any consultee should be regarded as a endorsement to a scheme. Late submissions will not be permitted. If the statutory consultee wishes to see an application ‘called in’ then this should be via the local Regional Mayor.
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