Keep it communal

By Cllr Barry Wood | 15 August 2023

I share with Greg Clark a desire to bring about a more strategic perspective to the planning system. In case you missed it, this was the former levelling up secretary’s primary rationale – expressed in The MJ’s Viewpoint last week – for recommending that responsibility for planning is moved from district to county councils.

However, my proposed remedy is the opposite to Mr Clark’s. I firmly believe the answer lies in properly resourcing and strengthening a system which is very much situated close to local people, local businesses and local investors.

To remove planning to what many will regard as a remote county hall – would risk undermining public faith in the system. Will local people be more likely to support decisions to proceed with developments if they are taken further away from them? I think not.

Under the current system, planning officers are very local. They develop a huge understanding of their local communities, local environment and local heritage. Should they cover an area maybe five or six times as large, their local knowledge would have far less depth. The same is true of councillors sitting on planning committees. So why make the change?

It is the quality of local relationships and local understanding that can make a planning system truly strategic. A council working closely alongside its partners – including county and unitary councils – to make decisions about places it is familiar with, when it fully comprehends the needs of its local communities, its local employers and its local environment, is the epitome of strategic.

These relationships, built around the convening power of the district council, help ensure a proposal is viable, sustainable and appropriate for the area. To automatically equate ‘strategic’ with ‘large’ is a mistake.

The other rationale Mr Clark uses is the under-resourcing of planning departments. He is right to observe they are thinly staffed. This is a longstanding problem resulting from local government planners’ pay falling in real terms while private sector positions have become relatively more attractive. As the number of applications has risen but the number of staff has fallen, the workload has intensified for those remaining. This is true of all council areas, not just districts. Such is the financial challenge in local government that all types of council have been forced to make cuts in planning.

Mr Clark’s proposed solution does nothing to address the quantum issue – merge the district teams in a county area and you are still left with the same number of planning applications being considered by the same number of planners.

The Government, to its credit, has latterly worked to ease the problem. The increase in planning fees announced earlier this year is a helpful start, as is the new £24m Planning Skills Delivery Fund. But investment must be sustained long-term to bring about the step change we all seek. That is why we have been calling for councils to be given the freedom to set their own planning fees and to recover the full cost of providing these critical services.

Expertise and local knowledge built up over years are prerequisites to building more stable planning teams and reaching speedier decisions. But they will not be achieved by merging planning departments.

Despite the problems we, like other councils, face, districts’ performance has been commendable. Ninety per cent of the 424,000 applications we received in 2021-22 were granted, and 86% of major applications were decided within the target 13 weeks. There is, of course, room for improvement but, in my view, forced mergers rarely act as a stimulus to performance.

What would help is a stable environment. There is another new consultation on changing the local plan making process, alongside a series of other consultations related to planning.

Meanwhile, the District Councils’ Network, like so many others, fears the proposed infrastructure levy will do little to ensure those who make the profits from developments make a fairer contribution to the costly infrastructure they require, or to bring about affordable housing. This recent policy churn and uncertainty has been damaging for planning teams. We must hope that the current consultations result in genuine improvements.

A reoccurring sentiment across society in recent years has been that power is held far away from us and we feel powerless during a challenging period. Centralising planning far from individual communities would only add to this. Planning should be locally determined and local democracy must not be diluted.

Cllr Barry Wood is regeneration and growth spokesperson of the District Councils’ Network and leader of Cherwell DC


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