Editor’s Comment

A Comment On The Planning Policy Framework Debate

The intervention of business interest groups supporting the hotly debated Draft Planning Policy Framework and the rural interest groups urging a more conservative approach often appear to miss the main fundamental considerations.

The Government’s key phrase has been that the new framework will make a “presumption in favour of sustainable development”, but this phrase is both vacuous and misguided in equal measure.

This proposal is out for “consultation” by the government until 17th October this year. The following points, in my view, apply:

1   The Government’s position is severely tainted.

George Osborne said “Do not underestimate our determination to win this argument. This is part of our plan for growth.”

This does not seem much like consultation to me. It smacks of a government that has made up its mind and that will not be dissuaded from their chosen course. As Nick Robinson, political correspondent pointed out after the Chancellor’s big speech at the Conservative Party Conference: “The Chancellor’s not for turning.”

2   The existing Planning Process is long and complex and makes new development too difficult.

This may be the case. However, the planning process should be neutral and impartial and make an assessment as regards what is best for the local area. At present, there is no presumption against development although a process has to be gone through that is sometimes too long and convoluted.

3   What is “sustainable” development?

We have written before on this ‘sustainable’ keyword. When used in such a context without a definition, it is ambiguous and highly subjective, two things which a planning policy should absolutely not be when dealing with matters as important as the construction of schools, industry and housing in Britain’s communities.

4   What is “sustainable”?

Sustainability is another green buzzword more suited to political spiel than a reality of planning applications and the passing of suitable development projects which should, wherever possible, be as objective and impartial as possible.

The term actually refers to the creation of a development which satisfies the needs of today, without sacrificing those of the future in three important aspects: economic, environmental and social. If every development has to be truly ‘sustainable’ then planning departments will become ghost towns, presumption or no presumption. The cost of a truly ‘sustainable’ development, under all three criteria, is more than developers can pay.

The term cannot, therefore, be literal. So what is it doing there except pleasing the ‘green’ electorate?

5   Why should the presumption be in “favour” of development?

The very idea of a presumption in favour of sustainable development is tipping the scales too far in one direction and not creating a situation which would surely be best for all, i.e. when each development is reviewed on its own merits, not relative to the pounds in the developer’s pocket or to the strength of emotional opposition to it.

This is the reason the policies are polarising the electorate, it’s not just bad logic, it’s bad politics.

Certainly the planning framework could be distilled down to a more manageable size, which would speed up the planning process, but it cannot be that a development on an unsuitable site or in an inappropriate location is accepted because of a presumption towards development and a lack of viable opposition.

In my view, each proposal must be reviewed on its own merits, with no presumption either way. A good Planning Framework should achieve parity between encouraging development and discouraging construction on inappropriate sites, it should not veer either way.

The empty homes problem

This month’s article on empty homes highlights the important issue of the UK’s 700,000 void properties and highlights how bringing back into use these properties will go some way to alleviate the housing under-supply problems.

But is that where the significant physical undersupply of properties ends? The underutilisation of existing properties as homes should surely include consideration to the number of second homes rendering some of Britain’s towns and villages desolate for 10 months a year.

Cast your mind back to the MP’s expenses scandal and remember the numbers of MP’s with a second home and you can quite see why taxes on properties that lie dormant for 11 months a year are not perhaps as high as they might be.

Instead of having a reduction in council tax, should these property owners pay double tax? If the overage above the full council tax was ring fenced and given to the local housing association to provide additional homes for locals who cannot get onto the property ladder because they are priced out by the second-home owners, then there would be a natural justice in the taxation.

This would provide a huge boost to the economy within the building sector and would be paid for by the affluent few. If persons with a second home could not afford the extra tax, they could sell the property and create greater supply which would help alleviate the shortage in properties and reduce the pressure on overdeveloping these locations.

Towns and villages all over the country, but particularly on the coasts, are becoming deserted in some seasons with a loss of properties to urbanites seeking a bolt-hole to while away one month a year.

Which authority has the most second homes registered? Did I hear you say Westminster?

The benefits of discouraging this behaviour are obvious, but it raises a searching question for the Government:

Do those in Westminster dare to make a law to help others, but which might be to their own collective detriment?

02-10-11                                                                                                                              LCB

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