A Conservative government would rename the newly-formed Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC), the government’s newly-formed planning body, as the ‘Major Infrastructure Unit’ in a shake-up to entire planning regime.
Under the new Green Paper for planning, “Open Source Planning”, the Conservatives say: “The planning system is vital for a strong economy, for an attractive and sustainable environment, and for a successful democracy. At present, the planning system in England achieves none of these goals. It is broken.”
Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Caroline Spelman, said Labour’s planning system is: “bad for democracy, bad for the environment and bad for business.
“Too many decisions taken by unelected quangos, there is too much unnecessary red tape and there are no incentives for local residents to back sustainable development. We will put local communities in the driving seat,” she said.
There is a particular focus on housebuilding and low-carbon infrastructure. They say the current system is: “Almost wholly negative and adversarial,” creating, “bureaucratic barriers rather than enabling communities to formulate a positive vision of their future development.”
An ‘open source’ model, “a concept which originated in the software industry, where it aims to make computer programming open to all in a highly flexible and adaptable way,” is the solution, they say.
“Its values of transparency and free access have held out the chance of opening up the software industry to better quality software at a lower cost than before. We believe this is just the approach our planning system also requires.”
Regional planning, including the Regional Spatial Strategies, the Regional Planning Bodies, and national and regional building targets would be abolished with new legislation in any first term. Planning inspectors will no longer have the power to change plans, but instead tell the Secretary of State of any breaches of national planning guidance and process.
They say they will create: “A basic national framework of planning priorities and policies, within which local people and their accountable local governments can produce their own distinctive local policies to create communities which are sustainable, attractive and good to live in.”
National Director of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA), Rosemary Beales, said: “Speeding up the planning process would increase confidence in the investment and delivery of major projects and would support a strategic infrastructure plan. Planning reform need not reduce the democratic element of the process, but improve it to reflect the national significance of infrastructure.
“Clearly setting out government policy in all areas of infrastructure and simplifying the process of implementation through independent professional judgment is the basis of a fast, fair and effective planning system.”
The biggest surprise is the fate of the IPC, which the Tories have been adamant will be abolished.
The new policy will: “Establish a democratically accountable version of the major infrastructure planning system introduced by Labour - providing a parallel at national level to the local accountability and civic engagement which will be promotedby our new local planning system.”
So, the IPC will be abolished, “Whilst retaining its expertise and fast-track process within government.”
They will retain the used of Hybrid Bills - such as was used to promote Crossrail - “to promote very major linear projects like high-speed rail - ensuring a proper Parliamentary process.”
All other major infrastructure projects, including power stations, will be subject to planning inquiries with binding timetables, similar to the IPC model, and focus on planning issues rather than examining need or principle, guided by National Policy Statements (NPSs) which will be put to a parliamentary vote.
Final approval for major projects will come from the Secretary of State, from the Major Infrastructure Unit’s recommendations, under a strict time limit to avoid any overtly political decision.
“We will provide transitional arrangements for projects already before the Commision to ensure that these
projects are not disrupted or delayed,” they say.
They will also present to Parliament for debate a “consolidated national planning framework, which will set out national economic and environmental priorities, and how the planning system will deliver them.”
Acting director for Policy & Partnerships at the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), Matt Thomson, disagreed with the Conservative conclusion that the system is ‘broken’, although they welcomed the National Planning Framework.
“We do not believe the planning system is ‘broken’; the system itself is basically sound, but has been over-engineered and centralised. Few of the Conservatives’ stated aims actually need a radical change to the planning system which could lead to a period of uncertainty, resulting in serious consequences for the provision of housing, employment and key infrastructure, as well as for overall economic recovery.
“We will be looking very closely at proposals that we have concerns about such as abolishing regional planning, enabling so-called third-party rights of appeal and introducing a presumption in favour of sustainable development, and will advise the Conservatives accordingly.’