• An open letter to Eric Pickles from a planning officer

    21st September 2012 | News | Claire
  • An anonymous local authority planner sends an open letter to communities secretary Eric Pickles.

    Dear right honourable Eric Pickles MP

    I am writing in response to the planning policy changes you proposed last week. I was educated in planning during the boom years, courtesy of a bursary from your department’s predecessor at a time when there were big shortages in the numbers of planners. As such, I have been unprepared for this government’s barrage of animosity towards the planning profession.

    Though it has ranged from hypocrisy to downright contempt, your ministerial statement on Thursday was the final straw. Here are the top six reasons why:

    1. Community Cohesion

    Proposals to extend the right to extend houses to up to 8 metres without planning permission will do nothing for community cohesion. These kinds of unneighbourly additions will build resentment between neighbours from valid complaints about loss of light and outlook to potentially dangerous comments about overcrowding and immigration. If you want a Big Society you need to start small, by looking at the day to day issues people care about at the local level; such as protecting local amenity and the character of their existing neighbourhoods.

    2. Spiralling Costs for Cash- Strapped Councils

    These proposals will increase the burden on local tax payers. While you claim the proposals will reduce the number of planning applications, and therefore free up council resources, in reality the loss of fee income from householder applications will hit planning departments hard after a wave of spending cuts from central government. The inevitable increase in planning enforcement complaints from local residents into potential planning breaches which will have to be investigated by council officers will bring the system to its knees. This is at a time when many local authorities are already facing a backlog of planning enforcement complaints. Such a broad stroke approach to planning policy means it’s likely that the public will lose faith in the effectiveness of the planning system. Plus, works which do need planning permission will become more difficult to enforce as confusion arises about what work does and doesn’t need permission.

    3.  Affordable Housing and Mixed Communities

    Allowing developers to plead poverty regarding the provision of affordable housing means the mixed communities agenda – the one in which you have committed to avoid a ghettoised urban landscape – will be eroded. While it is recognised that the government is investing in affordable housing separately; these proposals will lead to the separation of affordable and market housing into different estates. Cast an eye back to the lessons from the past from segregated communities and sink estates and you will see why this is potentially disastrous for communities already under pressure from the recession.

    4. The Environment

    Back gardens, particularly in cities, provide valuable habitats and are an important mitigating factor against urban warming. They also contribute towards mitigating drainage problems and flooding, an increasing problem in urban areas. Your own government in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) (para 99) recommends the use of green infrastructure to mitigate flooding and improve drainage. The NPPF (para 48) instructs councils not to include garden land in housing supply projections. Your proposals fly directly in the face of your own policy framework and the government’s wider green agenda.

    5. The Green Belt

    Your ministerial statement criticises Labour’s Regional Spatial Strategies for proposing to “bulldoze” the Green Belt. Several paragraphs later it states the government will be prioritising local plan examinations where councils propose to review their own green belts. This is a blatant attempt to let councils take the blame for changes to the green belt at the local level. Regional planning policy in the form of regional planning guidance was instigated under a Conservative government in the 1980s, and the current success of the mayor’s London Plan shows that regional planning can, and does, work in practice.

    6. U turns

    Your own localism agenda in which planning decisions should be made at the local not national level, clearly did not last very long. When coming into power, your government criticised the previous Labour government for a top down, centralised, target driven planning system. Your proposals to take decision making powers away from local authorities who have a track record of slow and poor quality planning decisions will take local democracy away and further erode faith in the planning system. I ask you to look into the percentage of planning officer recommendations to approve schemes which are overturned at planning committee by ward councillors under pressure from local communities. It is not the planners who are the enemies of growth; often complex political reasons figure high on the reasons why planning applications get refused. Developers can also play a role in delays as they attempt to play the system. This all needs to be considered before senselessly blaming planners for delays.

    While it is clear that there are reforms which can (and should) be made to the planning system, effective reforms will only arise when you begin to work with planners not against them to deliver changes. The divide and rule approach against the public/private sectors is counter productive. Statements like “Planning is a quasi-judicial process: justice delayed is justice denied” imply that planning regulations are made up by local authorities and if we can’t decide things immediately then there’s no point in applications being submitted. Clearly this stance is completely untrue. We need to work collaboratively to address the real problems with housing delivery rather than headline grabbing using the easy target of local authorities.

    Sir Peter Hall (Barlett Professor of Planning and Regeneration, University College London) writing in the Planning magazine (24 August 2012) argues to bring back gold medals for good planning. This hasn’t happened since 1948, but good town planning has been critical to the success of the Olympic Park in London 2012. Let’s recognise the benefits of good planning in new developments and its role in protecting the quality of the existing environment at the same time. To this end I would like to invite you to spend a day at the coal face in a busy Outer London Planning Department so you can get an insight into how the planning system works in practice. Are you up for the challenge?