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Open Source Planning - what does it mean for Wiltshire?

July 25, 2011 8:37 AM
By Trevor Carbin

The planning policy of the coalition government is to be based largely on the Conservatives' policy paper 'Open Source Planning' which was published prior to the general election.

The document promises a radical approach to planning, introducing democracy to the system where the autocratic Labour government had stifled and centralised it.

If all the proposals in the paper do indeed come to pass then it will mean a very different planning environment for developers, planning officers and the public to get used to.

Some moves have been made already, with the abolition of the Regional Spacial Strategies and the change of the rules to make building houses on gardens less easy. The requirement to build to excessively high densities on new developments has also been removed.

The title of the document claims a comparison with free software provided on the internet in competition to the tight grip of the big commercial providers, and the computing analogy is continued by the statement that "Only a radical reboot is going to deliver the planning system ... we need ... in the years to come."

The paper promises that, "Whole layers of bureaucracy, delay and centralised micro-management will disappear as planning shifts away from being an issue primarily for "insiders" to one where communities take the lead in shaping their own surroundings."

It is of course common for opposition parties to promise decentralisation and 'localism' when in opposition, only to find when in government that the levers of power are such fun to play with and the common people so unreliable and ignorant that it won't actually be possible to do those promised things.

The Conservatives recognise the possibility that allowing local people to take a real part in decision making could lead to a reduction in the number of houses being built, so they've said that there will be financial advantages through council tax and business rate rebates when development takes place, The actual amounts - six years' worth of council tax or business rates - probably wouldn't be enough to make most opponents change their minds, especially if in a unitary area like Wiltshire the money disappeared into the council's general bank account rather than being identified for more local use.

The Labour government appointed a quango, the Infrastructure Planning Commission, to force through big national projects. The Conservatives are promising a more democratically accountable version, but it's not clear how it would operate.

Another trend under Labour was the increasing power of the planning inspectorate coupled with increasing contempt for the District or Structure plans produced by local councils. Inspectors were given powers to over-ride local plans and to take the final say on where development should go. The new government will restore the balance of power to the local councils.

There will also be changes to the appeals system on individual applications. Currently developers can appeal against refusal of an application but there is no appeal against permission. That injustice is proposed to be remedied. This potentially could mean a profound change to the system, though in the case of major planning applications the costs of mounting a successful appeal can be significant so residents groups would need to be well organised to take on developers in this way. Either way an appeal will only be able to be lodged if there was "an abuse of process or failure to apply the local plan."

The government also sees a more important role for consultation with local communities both at the point of plan production and at the application stage. The current formalised consultation is extremely limited and often generates disillusionment amongst members of the public when they see their opinions not being listened to. This aspect of the proposals would also require a significant culture change in Wiltshire Council, which sees 'consultation' as a top-down process of people being generously informed of the council's intentions.

Developments which don't attract opposition are to be fast-tracked. The idea here is that developers, if they wanted an easy ride to planning permission, could work with residents to create buildings which people like and will therefore not object to. Whether or not this works will depend on how developers see their longer term prospects - they won't mind waiting if they think they'll get more profit from a cheap and nasty development, but they would co-operate if they thought they'd never get such a permission either from the council or from the inspectorate.

The concept of sustainability also runs through the Conservative document. Green ideas were taken up by the Labour government but not to the point of doing very much, and Conservatives are also very good at pretending to be green in theory. One of our local Conservatives won an election using the slogan 'Vote Blue Get Green' and then brought a climate-change denying motion to the council, and this epitomises Conservative ideology up to now. Of course it's possible that the new government will behave better, and certainly the paper says all the right things about incentives for sustainable development and changes to the building regulations to encourage microgeneration.

As now, the local plan will be the bedrock on which all individual planning applications are based. Labour produced a complex local plan system with a phalanx of documents any of which could be - and frequently were - changed by central government diktat. The Conservatives want the plans to be built "from the bottom up so that they genuinely respect the will of the people. We will help communities to come together so they can solve their collective problems together."

They then go into paradoxical mode by making local democracy compulsory, whether people like it or not. "We will ... mandate that all local authorities use collaborative democratic methods in drawing up their local plans."

And here's a curious paragraph from the report: "There has been a degree of apprehension that some local authorities will take the opportunity of moving from the current set-up to our new Open Source planning system to put a brake on house-building. While we are confident that the combination of collaborative democracy and our council tax, business rates and local tariff incentives will be sufficiently persuasive to encourage local authorities to embrace development, we will also legislate to ensure that the production of new local plans will be achieved within a reasonable timescale."

It explains this apparent non-sequitur by saying that if a council dawdled in getting its plan produced then any planning applications in its area would be automatically permitted unless they conflicted with national policy. So the commitment to local democracy seems somewhat superficial.

'Affordable' housing is to be encouraged by financial incentives. The question of what constitutes affordable housing isn't gone into in the report but other policy statements from the Conservatives have implied they'd like to see more part ownership schemes. These have always seemed like a reasonable idea in theory but in practice have combined the disadvantages of purchase with the disadvantages of renting, so have never really caught on. There must though be scope for developing more user-friendly schemes. The best way of providing 'affordable' housing and reducing the housing crisis is simply building for rent. The plan is to give local authorities 125% of the council tax from the new properties for 6 years, though it doesn't say if the actual tax paid by the tenant or landlord is offset against this. Either way the total amount, given that affordable housing is likely to be in the lower council tax bands, will be of the order of £8,000 at current values, which given the cost of building a new house is not a strong incentive.

The local tariff which will be imposed on new housing to fund infrastructure - replacing the current 'Section 106' agreements which are used to make developers pay for roads, schools, open space etc - will not be required from affordable housing developments. Supposedly this is a financial incentive for developers to provide such housing, though again there would need to be a strong differential to make developers forgo the profits to be made from building for private purchase.

The Conservatives also want to create local housing trusts, though its not clear how these would be different from Housing Associations, and they want to encourage self-build and other sustainable development. They want to see improved design and will include compulsory consultation with neighbours on the design of new development.

They want to introduce "Charettes". Me neither, but according to Wikipedia this is design by committee in an intensive form. Although it sounds rather horrendous it would have to be better than the design by computer we get at the moment.

Inadequate consultation could become a reason to refuse a planning application, so Charettes may be something we all have to get used to.

The possibility is also raised of developers being able to bribe residents not to object to their schemes. "If more than a small minority of residential neighbours in the immediate vicinity of a new development raise any objection, then the conformity of the planning application with the local plan must be formally assessed by the local planning authority." And to avoid this hold-up, "Developers will ... speed up the planning process by reaching voluntary agreements to compensate nearby householders ... in return for their support."

And what's really tricksy here is that the developer wouldn't need everyone to agree, so if you reject their first offer in the hope of a better deal you may get nothing if the majority of your neighbours agree to sell their consent for the price offered.

On other matters, residents would be offered financial compensation, possibly on a permanent basis via cheap energy, for wind farms in their neighbourhood. This makes sense and allows communities directly to benefit from such schemes.

Part of the pro rata payment made by developers on new house building would go to conservation, though the Conservatives seek to give a financial value to loss of biodiversity, which may be difficult. They also say conservation should not raise the cost of development, which again is impossible if the job is to be done properly.

The impact of their schools policy on planning is also covered. If you want free schools you have to put them somewhere, so restrictions on changes of use of existing buildings are removed. This means if Tesco want to move into education - as they undoubtedly will - they could use space in their existing stores, or use any other buildings without planning permission.

There will though be a less liberal system for phone masts. Currently operators can put these more or less where they like, but a requirement to go through the planning system on all new masts will be brought in.

The tabloid pre-occupation with the Human Rights Act is introduced. The Conservatives say they want to scrap it because gypsies make use of it, and replace it with a new British Bill of Rights, which will presumably classify gypsies and travellers as sub-human and therefore exempt. They do also have some more sensible proposals for a fairer system of allocating land for gypsy and traveller sites.

And then there is parking. The vile John Prescott decreed that cars were bad when possessed by people other than himself, and that inadequate parking space should be provided on new high-density developments. This has caused insuperable problems for residents in areas like Paxcroft Mead and Staverton Waterside. "Research found that car parking remains a significant issue for residents and house buyers. ... The level of parking in new developments is often inadequate for residents' and visitors' demands. ... Attempts to restrict parking in order to curb car ownership were unrealistic and had little or no impact on the number of cars a household would require and acquire." Many residents of estates built in the last decade would agree with that. The solution is to abolish the rules and allow local discretion. Having spent a lot of effort trying to help people afflicted by this problem many local councillors would say Amen to that!

Going back to sustainability, building regulations and permitted development rules will be amended to make microgeneration easier to achieve. This is good news, and could have consequences the authors of the report haven't envisaged.

Conclusions. Most of the report endorses Liberal Democrat ideology of improving democracy in the planning process. Sometimes this goes to the point of naivety, but I look forward to the government bringing it on. If fully enacted it could be quite revolutionary and could see great leaps forward in the fields of social housing, general design, and green economics. It certainly promises a huge improvement on the Labour system which gave power to developers. I hope the politicians will have the courage to implement the reforms, despite the arrays of civil servants and wealthy developers who will already be telling them it can't be done.