By Matt.Ross

02 Nov 2011

A city planner working in a tough part of the North warns that coalition plans may undermine wider regeneration aims in a dash for instant cash.

“I work as a strategic planner for a council in the North of England, covering a largely urban area that’s suffered badly from the decline of manufacturing and extractive industries. The council has reacted by creating quite a proactive, enabling planning team: I develop masterplans and design briefs for our priority regeneration sites, and as projects come forward I help developers through the planning process.

My job makes quite a contrast with the classic idea of planners as bureaucrats, sitting in grey offices with a stamp reading: ‘No way!’ We’ve been called “drag anchors” on growth [by communities secretary Eric Pickles], but I’d like to think the reality is far from that. Our planning team actively seeks to enable development; in some cases the council is willing to dispose of its own land assets for less than maximum value in order to get things moving on the ground, and we try to stimulate growth and create jobs.

However, we’ve been dealt a difficult hand. The area is pretty depressed, land values are low, and many of our key sites are brownfield land – in some cases with poor access and contamination problems. We used to have an urban regeneration company, and that did a lot of site acquisition and preparation, plus some good work restoring historic parts of the city centre. It’s gone now, though, so we’re trying to carry forward some of its plans for major developments without its finance or its access to consultants.

Right now things are very uncertain in planning, because of the government’s National Planning Policy Framework [NPPF]. That reduces thousands of pages of guidance to just 50 pages; in doing that you’re bound to miss things – and I think they have.

Ultimately, planning is about managing development by balancing social, economic and environmental issues and getting the right type of development in the right place. But while the NPPF talks about sustainable development, in reality there’s an assumption that economic growth takes precedence. The NPPF reduces our ability to direct growth: it gives us less control over the location of retail or office developments, for example, which might mean that developers could build shopping centres or office blocks well outside the town centre. That might be good for some developers, but it undermines our ability to use retail or offices to foster regeneration in the city centre. Similarly, we’re concerned that we’ll find it harder to encourage the use of brownfield sites before greenfield, or to prioritise sustainable forms of transport.

One worrying NPPF provision would mean that where the council doesn’t have its ‘development plan’ in place, there’s a presumption that applications will be granted. Unfortunately, the NPPF gives very little information on what the development plan should look like, and because the NPPF is in draft form we’re taking a risk if we use what it does have to say as a basis for our emerging plan. Putting the production of our plan on hold until we have a finalised NPPF could mean that as soon as the NPPF does come into force, we’ll have to approve applications for developments that undermine what we’re trying to do.

Meanwhile, the Localism Bill encourages local communities to get actively involved in planning. I welcome the idea, but there are concerns about how it will work in practice. Neighbourhood plans will have to be broadly in line with the development plan, and they’ll only be able to request more development, not less. This may suit the interests of businesses more than those of residents – and indeed, business groups will also be able to request the opportunity to write a plan. Each request will require a referendum, which is expensive and requires significant resources. And people will need help to get involved in shaping neighbourhood plans; the charity Planning Aid has been very helpful in the past in helping us run successful consultation events and advising local people – but it’s just had its funding cut, which is a shame.

At the moment, with none of these policies fully ratified, it’s a very uncertain time: we’re just trying to work out how they’ll affect the delivery of projects that we’ve been trying to pursue. The government shouldn’t be scapegoating planners: we understand the need to streamline the planning system, but we also raise legitimate concerns about how these ideas will play out – and when we do so, we shouldn’t just be dismissed. Planning can seem bureaucratic, but it plays an important role, and it shouldn’t be steamrollered purely for the sake of economic growth.”

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