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Nick Boles and the planning power struggle

England’s planning power struggle

The planning minister battled dissatisfaction with localism and the Highways Agency at the RTPI Politicians in Planning Association (PIPA) conference. It all boils down to the local plan, he insisted.
“We don’t want planning to be the preserve of some professional priesthood,” said Nick Boles. “Neighbourhood planning is opening this whole system up to everyone.”
Local politicians at the RTPI PIPA Conference did not appear to feel proprietorial over planning in the first place.
Planning inspectors always have the last say, said Anne Jones, Mid Sussex District Council member, at the conference in Milton Keynes, which was themed ‘Planning that meets the needs of current and future generations’.
“We say why a development is not suitable at a planning committee and it goes to appeal,” she said. “Then an inspector comes along and he grants it. He doesn’t have to live there. I often wonder if what the planning inspector says is acceptable is what they want to live in.” 
The inspector backs the council in 67 per cent of cases and those overturned are without a local plan and five-year land supply, said Boles. “At which point, frankly, I can tell all of the inspectors to go on holiday.
“The difficulty with Mid Sussex is this: you do not have a local plan, you have a draft local plan," the minister continued. "The draft does not yet pass examination and examination is what invests your plan with legal power. If you have made alternative provision for growth in your local plan and five-year land supply then you can say no to anything that isn’t in your plan.”
However, in the case of Uttlesford District Council, it is a government agency that has held up a local plan from implementation, pointed out councillor Jackie Cheetham. 
“We’ve been trying to crack on with our local plan and it has taken us 15 months for the highways award that you need before you go to the final stage. The Highways Agency has been the main delay in that – a government agency.
“Nick Boles promised when in opposition that he would try to disband the regional spatial strategy figures because local people have input and local knowledge of where we should build, and that has also gone out of the window.” 
It indicates that localism is an ineffectual buzzword, said Anita Gerard, Bedford Borough Council member. “What you’re saying to people is ‘Yes we’ll consult you’, but if it doesn’t accord to the government’s views of the time, what’s the point?”
Mike Roberts, Rushmoor Borough Council member said that in large parts of the country it’s true that we have a situation in which proposed conflict areas are decided more and more by the Secretary of State himself. “Are we going to have localism, which you talk about but don’t implement, or is it centralism by the back door?” he asked.
Boles said there was absolutely no excuse for the Highways Agency to delay plans but acknowledged that “it’s the most stubborn agency that the government has”.
It contradicted his assertion that there is a positive shift from “too much controlling or checking what other people want to do, to an approach of coming up with a plan for the future, within which people will be free to operate and develop”.
Boles, sensitive to a damning Daily Telegraph article that accused him of blaming the housing crisis on elderly people and left him “gloomily eating my cake in the House of Commons afterwards”, put the ageing population at the top of his agenda. 
“We have completely failed to anticipate the growth of the older population who still want independence but need a bit more support. Local authorities should be thinking about this kind of development when you set your community infrastructure levy rates so that you’re not choking off this development,” he said.
The second item on the agenda should be town centres, he stressed, adding that housing for older people inside town centres was a “really interesting idea”. Self-build should be the third item on councillors’ agendas, Boles added.
 “In the rest of Europe self-build provides more than half of all new houses built. Only in this country is it a tiny eccentric habit that involves Kevin McCloud and making a house out of yoghurt and straw.
“We are never going to get public support for house building if it’s always seen to be big companies coming along and building hundreds of identical houses. Local people design something that they want to live in, not something that they want to sell quickly.”
However, there must be a mechanism that allows a percentage of land to be set aside for self-building, to avoid it being snapped up immediately by developers, said Michael Arthur, Epsom and Ewell Borough Council member. Emma Hay, senior project manager at the Improvement Service, said Heads of Planning Scotland's frameworks were “a good starting point for understanding the components of a high-quality planning service and taking targeted action to continuously improve”. The Improvement Service offers a national skills development programme for staff and members.
“People are at the heart of high-quality public services and with the right support a lot can be achieved,” she added. “Naturally, this needs resources, be it effective use of current resources or additional resources.”

Local plans in figures

64% of local planning authorities believe their local plans are up-to-date
80% think their economic strategies are relevant and up-to-date
50% have yet to update local plans post-NPPF