Turbulent twelve months for planning?

Chelgate Autumn Newsletter 2014

Unusually, we know when the General Election will be next year: 7 May 2015. The Coalition’s move to fixed term parliaments has in one sense added an element of certainty to political and thus commercial life. But in other respects the future for local authorities, planners and developers has never been more uncertain.

It would be a foolish person who claimed to predict the outcome of the next general election, whether in terms of votes, seats or the government which emerges from the smoke and fury. Labour maintains a remarkably narrow lead over the Conservatives given the negative poll rating of the Prime Minister and the natural tendency of the pendulum to swing. UKIP has not lost its European election bounce and in some senses has become established as the third party, something confirmed in recent local council by-elections. The Liberal Democrats continue to be punished as the junior Coalition party but know that historically at least incumbency may deliver a less cataclysmic effect than might be apparent from the outcome of the European elections.

Another Coalition is therefore on the cards. But its composition is anyone’s guess. Liberal Democrat activists would probably prefer the comfort of opposition or a Coalition with Labour. Many Conservatives have clearly not greatly enjoyed their time with their junior partners and might prefer an arrangement with UKIP, a Party, however, which still does not yet have a single member of parliament elected on its own ticket.

Meanwhile, house prices are still overheating in the greater south east as many councils continue at a snail’s pace to feel their way towards an adopted local plan, often clinging to housing targets which are considerably more modest than even those contained in the hastily abolished Regional Spatial Strategies.

shaking hands At the heart of the planning system, rightly or wrongly, is the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Despite massive speculation that he would be reshuffled, its current incumbent, the combative and deeply party political Eric Pickles, has continued as Secretary of State – to the fury of many in local councils who long for his surely almost certain departure next May.

But what would a post Pickles planning system look like?

Labour has yet to speak in detail and has asked Michael Lyons to produce a report. It is not clear whether this will be any more revolutionary than his report on local government finance in 2007. The Labour Conference this autumn may reveal all. But there are hints. Ed Miliband chose Stevenage to launch an initiative late last year to see more houses built, criticising ‘stick in the mud councils’ and promising that local planning authorities would in future have the right to plan for growth outside their own borders. Significantly Stevenage Borough Council has for the past two decades been locked in a struggle with neighbouring North Hertfordshire district council in an effort to allow the town to expand westward across its current boundary.

UKIP continues to terrify and so the random mix of localism and central control is likely to continue

meeting It is a policy of sorts. But so is the Coalition’s imposition of a duty on local councils to cooperate. Both, however, are a long way from the old structure planning approach so carelessly discarded by both this and the previous government. And finance remains a key issue in relation to everyone’s apparent desire for social housing. And if the Conservatives remain in the driving seat? UKIP continues to terrify and so the random mix of localism and central control is likely to continue, especially as the Conservatives are committed to raising the European spectre in a referendum on UK membership of the European Union in 2017.

So it is more than likely that a new Conservative Secretary of State would differ little from Pickles except in style and would again pay lip service to localism to communities and devolution to councils while calling in any and every planning application which is politically inexpedient to its core constituency.

polls There is, however, a joker in the pack. The panicked decision by the leaders of the UK parties in effect to include ‘DevoMax’ on the Scottish independence referendum ballot paper means that English as well as Scottish devolution is back on the political agenda. At the very least, increased powers and funds will be available to English cities. And the ‘sleeping giant’ of the English shires is fast losing patience and will also clamour for a greater say on local matters. It beggars belief that greater autonomy over planning will not be part of any new balancing package for England even if Eric Pickles has been to date decidedly lukewarm.

Whether this of course is a help or a hindrance to house builders and developers is, of course, as with everything in the current political climate, something of an imponderable.

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