Bob Neill MP, the Conservative Shadow Planning Minister, at the Planning Officers Society Summit Conference held yesterday indicated that the current evolution of Conservative planning policy would be firmed up in their Green Paper in December. However, he emphasised that their thoughts on policy were still evolving and that he was open to suggestions. The Society will be pursuing this further with him.
Speakers at the Summit spoke of the need to review local government finance as an integral part of reforming planning, Bob Neill said the economy would underlie all that they did, and that as there would be no spare money about this would limit options for short term review which could be a can of worms. In the longer term a review was possible based on a more transparent model of local government finance, such as that in Australia. He also said that local authorities would be able to bid for money released by the demise of the RDAs, though they would have to do so within the context of a collaborative framework.
The Society tabled a paper on the future of strategic spatial planning and Neill readily accepted the need for a tier of planning between the national and the district (though this would not be regional). The current regional bodies were, he said, unaccountable bodies whose boundaries did not make any sense to the public. More meaningful sub-regional units were favoured, such as that for city regions, with Leaders' Boards and Local Area Agreements. In reply to a question from the floor about the policy gap that would be left if they scrapped RSSs on day 1, Neill suggested that the housing numbers proposed by districts during the preparation of their RSS could serve as an interim target.
Neill was adamant that the recently established Infrastructure Planning Commission would be scrapped and its functions relocated (via a transitional arrangement) back into PINS. To give its decisions some political accountability, they will need to be approved by both Houses of Parliament which would make them more resistant to judicial review, with its associated delays. National Policy Statements, however, would remain, as would the single consent procedure. They would also keep the system of Planning Policy Statements, though they were likely to rationalise them, and might even work towards a more coherent unified set of National Policy Statements. To avoid the Secretary of State sitting on Inspectors' reports until after elections, he could be given a statutory time limit within which to determine them- possibly as short as three months.
Neill suggested that the LDF process would be front-loaded so that more matters of principle were resolved at this stage, rather than being left to appeals. Neill said he wants to see more resources moved into LDF production, with better consultation (in line with their bottom-up approach), shorter, more easily digested documents stating a clearer vision for the area.
With planning applications, the Tories would like to see best practice on pre-application discussions extended, and for councillors to get more actively involved in applications affecting their areas, subject to safeguards.
Neill also indicated that CIL would be abolished under the Conservatives, in favour of a reformed S106 system, providing links between the community receiving the development and the benefits provided. In response to a question, he agreed that the current S106 arrangements were not fit for purpose.
David Hackforth, President of the Society, commented after the Summit that it was a useful and informative exchange of views and I especially welcome Bob Neill's statement that his door is open for further discussion on the Conservatives' proposals.
1. Speakers at the POS Summit included: