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Brokenshire enquiring into planning inquiries misses the point

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

‘Speeding up the planning process’ is one of those magic remedies politicians reach for when they want to encourage house building but are unsure how.

It’s a bit like calls for cuts in ‘public sector waste’ made by those only dimly aware of where this might be found.

The underlying assumptions are that planning processes can be sped up and that quicker decisions are necessarily better ones.

Communities secretary James Brokenshire is the latest to seek the Holy Grail of rapid planning by appointing National Infrastructure Commission member Bridget Rosewell to chair an independent review into planning appeal inquiries.

This presupposes that planners, and the planning inspectors who chair inquiries, are wasting part of their time on things that could be ditched without affecting the system’s quality or propriety.

Planning inquires normally happen only in the largest and most contentious cases, with other disputed applications decided on paper by inspectors.

According to the government, in 2017-18 appeal inquiries took an average of 44 weeks, but comprised only 2% of the 15,472 planning appeals decided.

They involved, though, decisions on 20,000 of the 30,000 homes granted permission through the planning appeals process.

Mr Brokenshire said: “We have been clear that the appeals process must work for both local communities and those taking forward housing schemes, and that involves swift and fair decisions being made to deliver the homes our communities need.”

It’s unclear what “work…for local communities” means. Before the 2010 general election the Conservatives toyed with giving residents the right to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate against local authority grants of planning permissions.

This was quietly shelved when the Localism Act 2011 was devised leaving developers able to appeal against refusals while aggrieved residents can only try their luck in court to challenge consents.

One never knows what Ms Rosewell might find, but presumably if the government knew where time-wasting existed in the system it could remove this without troubling her.

Setting up the review suggest it isn’t quite sure, but wishes to be seen to be doing something.

Mr Brokenshire could look at the problem from its other end. If local authority planning was better resourced it could reach more decisions within the set time limits and more easily work with developers to resolve problems.

Planning has seen heavy cuts and draws part of its funds from nationally set fees charged to developers regardless of the actual cost of processing their application.

Instead of Ms Rosewell, Mr Brokenshire could have handed the review to another eminent figure, his own department’s former permanent secretary Lord Kerslake.

Speaking at a Royal Town Planning institute conference this week, he urged the government: “Stop bypassing the planning system because you think it is inconvenient, you need to resource the strategic planning function properly… it’s in everyone’s interests to have a properly functioning planning system.”

Perhaps that is why he didn’t get the job.

By Mark Smulian, reporter

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