CHURCH TIMES – 18 SEPTEMBER 2020
The PM’s plan for ‘radical reform’ ought to be questioned, argues Jonathan Morris
The Prime Minister visits a building site in Dudley, in June
BACK in July last year, when the new Prime Minister was staking out his territory, reform of the planning system was mentioned as one area ripe for reform. True to his word, last month, the Government published its White Paper, Planning for the Future.
The planning process has the air of an unwieldy and overly bureaucratic system, which makes it an easy target for attack. Many will agree that planning decisions have enormous weight in shaping communities, whether in rural or urban areas (for different reasons in different localities).
In my experience, discussion of planning applications generates considerable interest and huge tension. Sometimes, the anger is directed towards the individual who has made an application; at other times, there is a more generalised frustration at a system that is perceived to be remote and loaded. Any attempt at wholesale reform merits careful consideration.
THE White Paper says that the aim is to reform the 1947 Town and Country Planning legislation, which, for generations, has been the pillar on which land use is built. In his foreword, Mr Johnson writes that the paper proposes “radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War”. Such a bold statement should cause us to sit up and pay attention to what is being proposed.
For churches, it is especially important to take notice, situated as they are in neighbourhoods, with a mission to build a community within the contours of the Kingdom of God. For those looking to study the issues involved from a Christian theological perspective, I can think of no better place to begin than with Timothy Gorringe’s Theology of the Built Environment (Cambridge, 2002) or his more recent The Common Good and the Global Emergency (Cambridge, 2011).
The 1947 Town and Planning Act was one of the main pieces of reforming legislation that shaped the creation of the welfare state. It enshrined in law the democratic right to influence buildings and environments that affect us, and decisions about land use were to rest in the power of local authorities.
Legislation has developed in piecemeal fashion and through case law, culminating in the National Planning Policy Framework of 2012. There is room for reform, but it would be wise to look carefully at what is being proposed.
We would not want the principle of democratic accountability usurped by the power of money.
If there is the desire to make a system work better, careful attention needs to be paid to the detail of the proposals. Simplicity and speed are not necessarily strengths when you are shaping living environments, even if they can claim an appearance of greater efficiency (and, therefore, profitability?).
WHAT does Planning for the Future look like? The Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, says that the proposals seek to create a “simpler, faster and more predictable system”. The language is alluring, but none of those attributes guarantees good decision-making.
The main change will be that land will be categorised for development, and will be labelled as for growth, for renewal, or protected. If land falls in the categories of growth or renewal, the presumption will be that permission will be given for development. The vehicle for this will be the Local Plan, which will have to be completed in 30 months. For those who have been involved in the neighbourhood plans, this will seem extremely ambitious.
The White Paper talks about using digital technology to improve the consultation process, which makes sense — but that does not mean that the process should be rushed. These things take time and need resources, particularly when large-scale developments are proposed.
What is known as Section 106 funding and the current version of the Community Infrastructure Levy will be replaced by a new infrastructure levy charged on the final value of the development. This will be crucial. Section 106 funding is one of the ways in which community facilities can be developed (all-weather pitches, play areas), and is one of the few ways in which local authorities can finance regeneration in an area. It has become clear during the pandemic just how important living areas are to people’s well-being; so any changes need to be adequately financed.
There is much to absorb in Planning for the Future. Parish and district councils will be considering their responses, and churches, too, can play their part. The document includes questions for discussion. These might be a good place to begin.
The consultation remains open until the end of October. If the planning system is to change, local voices should be protected, and decisions should not be left simply in the hands of developers and land agents. Planning really does matter.
The Revd Jonathan Morris is Associate Vicar of the Wulfric Benefice in the diocese of Bath & Wells.
The White Paper can be found here