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No more tinkering with the system, say planners

Words: Simon Wicks
Steve Quartermain

Stop tinkering with the planning system, support small housebuilders, give local authorities more resources and “kill CIL”.

Those were among the requests for a new government made by speakers at the University of the West of England's 15th Bristol Planning Law and Policy Conference on 20 November.

Taking the theme of ‘Planning for growth?’, the conference asked each of its speakers to answer the question ‘What should the government do?’ to enable the planning system to support economic growth in the UK.

No more tinkering

Almost all said they would like to see an end to “tinkering” with the planning system so that the substantial changes introduced by the present government could take root.

“Let the changes in the planning system bed down,” said Ralph Hawkins, land director of Taylor Wimpey. “No more tinkering. It would be nice to see more core strategies in place.”

Discharge of conditions

Hawkins went on to highlight development delays caused by the slow discharge of planning conditions. “It’s a bit of a challenge for us at times. We feel that sometimes they don’t get treated with the same urgency as the planning applications.”

Hawkins’ ‘asks’ were picked up by other speakers as the day went on. Bristol's planning director Zoe Willcox highlighted the lack of resources in local authority planning departments that could lead to the slow discharge of conditions.

"Bristol is now almost entirely reliant on the fees for planning applications"

This, she said, lay in cuts to local authority planning services and their subsequent reliance on planning fees to function. This was hampering the ability of planning departments to operate as efficiently as they could.

“Bristol is now almost entirely reliant on the fees for planning applications,” she said. “Either the government has to put the fees up or there has to be some other way of getting money into planning departments. The fees do not cover the cost of the delivery of the service.”

Shadow minister for communities and local government, Roberta Blackman-Woods MP argued that “tweaks” were needed to the NPPF to improve the planning system, but pledged that a Labour government would not remove the framework and would keep the local plan system. “We’ve really got to work with whatever’s already there,” she said.


The big push for a Labour government - should one be elected in May 2015 - would be towards the take-up of planning and economic development powers locally, through city regions or combined authorities. “If authorities are coming together to create new combined authorities we will work with that. It’s about pushing power down to what seems appropriate at the local level.”

Local authorities in England, she said, needed “long-term funding settlements” to give them “certainty and flexibility”.

“It’s about the centre stepping back a bit and letting local authorities set priorities and giving them the resources to do so.”

Promote smaller housebuilders

Like Hawkins of Taylor Wimpey, Blackman-Woods envisaged a greater role for smaller housebuilders in helping the nation deliver the homes it needs. Hawkins had made the point that the larger housebuilders simply couldn’t scale up quickly enough to deliver the 240,000 homes a year that the nation is said to require. The role of small housebuilders needed to be exapanded – particularly in opening up smaller sites. Blackman-Woods promised that a Labour government would promote these firms who currently build just 27 per cent of new houses – about half of the proporiotn that they have delivered in the past.

Kill CIL

Blackman-Woods also challenged the continued use of the community infrastructure levy (CIL) as a way of channelling money from development into communities.

“I’m not sure that CIL is the mechanism that will deal best for local sites. We have recommended through the Lyons Housing Review for a different form of planning gain for local sites.”

Richard Harwood QC said quite simply that he would “kill CIL”, opining that the “106 was beginning to work”. Harwood also noted that there were several areas of planning law that needed updating and reform. In particular, he noted, compulsory purchase arrangements and allied compenstation procedures dated back to Sir Robert Peel’s government of the 1830s. “A lot of the language no longer means what it meant then, a house meant a factory at times,” he noted.

"A lot of people hold the planning system in high regard. It's a system that actually works"

Chief planner Steve Quartermain also weighed in on the debate around the planning system and whether it should be subject to further “tinkering”.

“A lot of people hold the planning system in high regard,” he said. “It’s a system that actually works when it works and it produces results. The government sees it as a process of continuous improvement. They are not proposing any fundamental changes. They are just trying to get the system to work effectively.”

Asked what he would like to see a future government do, Quartermain answered that he would like to see an incoming government maintain the view that planning can be “at the heart” of delivering the housing the nation needs, and is a tool for “making life better”.

“I also hope the future government continues to employ a chief planner,” the chief planner added.

What they said


Ralph HawkinsRalph Hawkins, land director, Taylor Wimpey: “Quite often we have been with the government and they say ‘We need to build 240,000 homes a year. How are you going to do that?’ But there’s a limit to how much we can grow. In my view we need more housebuilders in the area, small and medium-sized companies to bring forward the small sites. But they have difficulty bonding. Local authorities tend to require bonds for section 106. Small builders cannot get the sureties.”



Zoe WillcoxZoe Willcox, director of planning, Bristol City Council: “Is neighbourhood planning slowing the delivery of housing in the city? It’s hard to say. But it’s increasing community awareness of the need for development.”





Roberta Blackman-WoodsRoberta Blackman-Woods, Labour’s shadow minister for communities and local government: “I think the purpose of the planning system is to enable development where appropriate. Some of what I want to do with the planning system is return it to its visionary roots. That’s what we need – proper town and country planning and to be using planners skills in the totality.

“We need to get away from the need to tick so many boxes because we really do need to create space for planners to work with communities about what sort of development is needed in the future.”


Claire PearceClaire Pearce, group manager of strategy and development, Sedgemoor District Council: “The single biggest issue that we have is highways in terms of day-to-day growth and discharge of conditions. Highways can be a massive barrier to growth on the ground. I would like to see a new duty to help with economic development.”




Steve Quartermain pointingSteve Quartermain, chief planner: “Positive planning is about the culture. We need to tlak about bhieng positive and that nees to bed into the culture of planning, too.

“A plan has got to be seen as more than a document. It’s a blueprint for implementation. It’s not an end in itself. It’s about how you think your place will lok in 10-15 years’ time. The obligation the is to try to deliver”



Kelvin MacDonaldKelvin MacDonald, senior visiting fellow, department of land economy, Cambridge University: “If you ask me what I think of the planning system, I think it would be a very good idea.”