The AGM of the Wildlife and Countryside Link held on 6 December was an opportunity for Secretary of State Michael Gove to reveal his current thinking on reforms to the planning system. These can be summarised as:
The 5 year housing land supply rule has caused his inspectors to pass bad plans. This implies that the way in which the national Planning Policy Framework NPPF (ie the presumption in favour of sustainable development) needs to be applied in a different way together with the methodology for calculating housing needs. The 300,000 houses a year national target should not be relied on, and local plans should not be driven by targets but by social justice and quality of life. Mr Gove also said there is a need to fully recognise the nature and climate emergencies in the operation of the planning system.
He expressed support for ‘gently dense’ development, sites that is a nod towards the Yimbys, 15 min neighbourhoods and would be consistent with custom-splitting. The reorientation of Homes England’s mission might include embracing ‘retrofit first’ and reduce the incidence of (un)sustainable urban extensions.
The extraordinary defeat of the Tories at the 2021 Chesham and Amersham bi-election has forced a re-think of the planning reforms set out in the Planning for the Future White Paper, which was based on the work of Policy Exchange, the think tank that Michael Gove had founded in 2002. The irony that PE came so close to causing fatal harm to the Tory Government should not obscure the fact that the reforms likely to upset the ‘blue wall’ are on hold while some purpose is found for ‘levelling –up to appease Tory voters in the ‘red wall’. There is a reasonable prospect of the planning system as is being operated in a more sensitive and environmentally friendly way. It might be too much to hope for the Secretary of State to find that reforms to neither planning law nor policy are strictly necessary were he to use his existing powers through national policy statements, oral and written ministerial statements, local plan examinations and planning appeal decisions. All those involved in the planning system; public, professionals, developers, politicians (and enlightened think tanks?) could then concentrate on the re-fashioning of urban and rural areas to enable the transition to a carbon neutral/negative economy.
This discussion is the clearest possible reminder that “planning is politics”, and that all those with constructive ideas about how to negotiate the transition to a carbon neutral or energy positive and more biodiverse economy should engage vigorously at local and national levels.