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14/12/2017

Making the duty to cooperate work? Good luck with that, Mr Javid

Words:

Political failure to organise local government around geography renders efficient planning impossible, argues Chris Shepley

Sajid Javid introduced a consultation paper called Planning for the Right Homes in the Right Places in the House of Commons on 14 September. As an ambition, this is not entirely novel, and few would argue for the wrong homes in the wrong places; but it is not one that is likely to be realised any time soon.

The burden of the paper was to bring into being a new standardised method of assessing housing need in each local authority area, thus reducing the amount of time and argument required to put together a local plan. This also seems like a fair objective, but again it is one that is not easily realisable. The process involved seems tolerably uncomplicated, and a half-decent attempt at an insoluble problem. Others cleverer than me have pointed out various flaws, and when lawyers get their hands on it we can expect that it will be turned into a never-ending nightmare.

“Somebody could, during the last half-century, have reorganised local government so that it was based on geography rather than history”

The point of this column, however, is to reflect on a particularly stupid thing that Mr Javid said in introducing this paper. He observed: “To the frustration of town planners, local communities are much more fluid than local authority boundaries.”

I think I speak for all of us when I say that we are not even the teensiest bit frustrated about this. It is simply a fact, and one we have known all about for decades. We know we need to deal with it. It’s the reason why we have been banging on about the need for strategic planning, the value of regional plans, the possible benefits of joint authorities (if properly constituted and empowered), travel to work areas, housing market areas, and all the other arrangements and techniques that might enable us to do so.

But I’ll tell you what we are frustrated about, Mr Javid. We are frustrated by the manifest failure of you and your various predecessors over a long period of time to do anything efficacious about this.

Somebody could, during the last half-century, have reorganised local government so that it was based on geography rather than history. Reflecting your apposite observation about the fluidity of local communities. This was brilliantly analysed and potentially solved in 1969 by the Redcliffe Maud report. But that fine template was put aside for political reasons – the greatest tragedy to afflict planning since the war – and nobody has since had the courage to do the job properly. This renders efficient planning impossible. Even when some useful authorities were invented, like the Metropolitan Counties for example, they were got rid of – essentially for being too effective.

A rather braver soul did in fact create regional plans, which in their short lives started to deal with this issue quite well; but some thoughtless fool got rid of them. They were, again, too effective to be acceptable. I would argue that none of the current difficulties with housing numbers would have occurred had this not happened – indeed, your latest paper would have been nugatory; and many more homes would have been built.

Instead, we’ve all been bothering about the duty to cooperate – surely the least-effective planning measure ever conceived. Your latest effusion makes an attempt to make this work by inventing a “statement of common ground”. Good luck with that. I think there might be a consensus emerging among planners and developers that regional plans should be reinvented, but it won’t happen of course – or at least not for a while.

The planning system has been let down by politicians over a long period of time. We’re frustrated not by the plain realities of geography and social mobility, but by the inability of successive governments to give us the tools to tackle it efficiently.

Chris Shepley is the principal of Chris Shepley Planning and former Chief Planning Inspector

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