Quote of the Day

                                                   “You don’t tell deliberate lies, but sometimes you have to be evasive”
                                                                                                                                                                                             Margaret Thatcher

So, the much-vaunted Neighbourhood Planning Bill made an appearance today but with one significant difference, the ‘infrastructure’ bit of the original proposed Bill has been quietly dropped. Part of the original purpose was to ‘transform the way we plan for major infrastructure projects in this country’. The omission of any mention of infrastructure suggests that the Bill is being introduced because it was in the Queen’s speech given just before Cameron departed but that it is not the planning bill we were waiting for or anticipating.

It may be that there is recognition within the new residents of Nos. 10 and 11 Downing Street that there really is a need for additional separate legislation to cover infrastructure, most of which currently has very large post-BREXIT question marks over funding.

Also mysteriously absent from the Bill is any mention of the greenbelt. When the Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech, a key facet was to ‘deliver the one million homes we need whilst protecting those areas that we value most including the Green Belt.’ Not one mention of Green Belt throughout the entire document, which perhaps suggests a slight relaxation of the paranoia over Green Belt protection/development in government. Unless of course we are about to get a separate bill focusing solely on the Green Belt, but we do hope not.

Ultimately, this Bill has been pared down to legislation which tinkers at the edges with Neighbourhood Planning and Planning Conditions, makes some amends to CPO powers but ultimately does very little in terms of the drive towards housing delivery. I would guess that there will be subsequent planning and infrastructure reform to come under the new regime post the Autumn Statement.

It is always pleasing when the Government has the foresight to publish the explanatory notes at the same time as the Bill, saving a brain melt from legalese. Although, I do still miss green papers and white papers…

The Bill came after a rather lacklustre PMQs where Jezza focused solely on housing and was criticised for not covering international issues. Arguably, housing is one of the single most pressing issues in the domestic sphere so a narrow focus on this was not a bad approach. However, as ever, he failed to actually make any policy points so somewhat missed the point. At the same time, it is clear that Theresa May’s speechwriters haven’t yet got to grips with her particular brand of humour (or lack thereof) so the quips at Corbyn’s expense fell a little flat – with the exception of her revelation that in a recent survey of who would be a better PM, ‘Don’t Know’ performed rather better than Jeremy Corbyn, even this suffered a little in the delivery. PMQs has certainly changed tone with the departure of the Bullingdon Club front bench, Theresa May is certainly no old Etonian, and we should all be thankful for that.

Back to the Bill, apparently the Bill will:

  • Identify and free up land for development
  • Give communities certainty
  • Speed up the process between granting of planning consent and delivery

Neighbourhood Plans

The Bill intends to make it easier and quicker for NPs to be brought forward and to oblige decision-makers to place greater weight on emerging NPs (not that this seems to be a particular problem at the moment with emerging NPs frequently cited as reasons for refusal of planning).

The Bill will also enable modifications to be made to NPs by either local authorities, inspectors or the NP body itself, without a referendum under specific conditions. Effectively this aims to make the process less clunky and easier to work alongside other planning documents. It will create a more fluid system locally but is unlikely to suddenly see more homes being delivered given that most NPs are all about managing or limiting development, very few are about actively encouraging growth.

Pre-Commencement Conditions

The Bill will introduce a measure meaning that pre-commencement conditions can only be introduced with the agreement of developers. Whilst this may speed things up post-planning, it may slow things down pre-planning as those conditions will still need to be dealt with at some point. The major caveat is that a local authority can refuse planning consent if an applicant refuses to accept a pre-commencement condition, which I would suggest amounts to the situation remaining exactly the same. Glad all of the policy work effort went into that bit then. However, the Secretary of State can regulate on what conditions are deemed reasonable in what circumstances. There we go again with the central localism…

PDR

Consents given under PDR will now have to go onto the planning register so Government can see the contribution which is being made towards the one million homes target. The other way of looking at this could be so that the government can get a better handle on which local authorities are using the policy and which are seeking to block it. Given that government appears profoundly deaf on the issues caused by PDR in terms of the future office market and economy, this policy only looks set to be expanded.

Community Engagement

The Bill also opens up the potential for the Secretary of State to dictate the way in which community engagement is undertaken by requesting that local authorities amend their own SCIs. It is not clear whether this is part of a push to increase community involvement or just increasing the scope of central government to intervene in local processes. It is, of course, all about localism and the devolution of power though, of course.

CPO

The Bill introduces a raft of amendments to temporary and permanent CPO powers, intending to streamline the process and speed things up where CPO is required to unlock schemes. However, given the complexities of CPO and the generally sensitive nature where CPO is required, it will be difficult to really make this process more simple without risking legalities and challenges. If it does reduce complexities then it will be welcome for major schemes and infrastructure projects which are held up for years in CPO disputes – although without a relevant infrastructure bill it is difficult to see this in practice.

All in all, a bit of a damp squib compared to expectation. Watch and wait for the Autumn Statement, this should be where the interesting stuff comes out.