• Planning chief blasts Govt plot to weaken planning laws

    4th September 2012 | News | Claire
  • George Osborne’s new push to overhaul planning laws is unwelcome, misjudged and could end up reducing the number of houses that are built, the country’s most senior planning officer has said.

    Malcolm Sharp, president of the Planning Officers’ Society, spoke after ministers pledged another attempt to rewrite planning laws only months after major changes were announced.

    He told The Daily Telegraph that ministers had misjudged the problems of the property industry, saying that developers’ lack of finances and the weak state of the economy were the real obstacles to building, not red tape. The Chancellor promised new changes in planning rules this week, saying economic recovery depends on stimulating development.

    Mr Osborne said the system led to unnecessary delays and promised to make it harder for residents to object to new developments.

    Mr Sharp rejected the Chancellor’s assessment. “I don’t think that it is the planning system that is the issue. It’s the wider economy,” he said. “Developers have hundreds of thousands of plots where they have planning permission granted but they are not building.

    “Instead of talking about planning, we need to find other ways to help developers use those sites.” He added: “This concentration on the local authorities and the appeals system is not going to help — it’s not going to address the problems the Government is talking about.”

    Mr Osborne has said he is encouraging local councils to use rules allowing them to authorise building on green belt land.

    However, the Chancellor has been accused of hypocrisy after it emerged that this year he backed a campaign against proposals to build on green belt land in his own constituency in Cheshire.

    In May, Mr Osborne backed residents protesting against plans by Wilmslow town council that would lead to hundreds of homes being built on protected rural land. He called their campaign “a victory for local people” and said:

    “I don’t think all the sites identified for housing are right.” Last month, the council said the plans would be rewritten to “realign” it with demands to protect the green belt and pledged to work with the protesters backed by Mr Osborne.

    Michael McCann, a Labour MP, accused the Chancellor of “huge hypocrisy” over the Wilmslow development plan. Aides to Mr Osborne said last night that he was in fact backing building on the town’s green belt at another site, provided the council created new protected land to replace it.

    Mr Osborne is pushing for changes in planning laws only months after the Coalition produced its National Planning Policy Framework, which is supposed to set planning rules for years to come. Mr Sharp said: “The NPPF is not even fully in place yet. What we are saying is ‘let us get on with the job’.”

    Mr Osborne has yet to explain exactly what he is proposing for the planning system and even senior ministers admit they are unsure about the Treasury’s intentions.

    The Treasury has said the proposed changes will be set out in legislation next month.

    Mr Sharp suggested that, by injecting uncertainty into the planning system, Mr Osborne risked deterring developers from embarking on new projects.

    Local authority leaders, many of them still trying to implement the NPPF, are also appealing to the Government to clarify its intentions. Rural campaigners have criticised the Government for returning to the issue of planning so soon after drawing up the NPPF.

    The National Trust suggested the latest changes would create turmoil. “What is needed more than anything now is stability,” it said.

    Downing Street defended the changes. “We still have issues with the planning system holding back development,” a No?10 spokesman said. The objective of the reforms is “making sure that big, sometimes controversial projects go through”.

    He added: “We are not talking about ripping up the planning laws. But we are talking about making the decisions more quickly.”