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The Upcoming General Election Demonstrates how the Land Industry must Separate itself from Politics

The process from a Local Plan allocation to a digger on site typically stretches beyond the length four-year political term, and yet it is all too easily derailed, or substantially delayed, by short-term political thinking and parochial bias.

 This is demonstrated time and time again, up and down the country. When Boris Johnson made a speech to the Conservative Party Conference in which he said that he would not support greenfield development, the then Prime Minister’s comments ricocheted around town halls up and down the country and many Local Plans were halted.

 An impasse occurred again when, a few months later, the Planning Bill was scrapped; again when Johnson was forced to stand down; then during the long process to select the next Prime Minister, and now, with radical changes to strategic planning proposed in the revised NPPF, local planning authorities (LPAs) are again halting progress on local plans. The latter is the result of a political rebellion, fuelled by entrenched NIMBYism.

 I can recall more than one conversation in which a developer stated that they wouldn’t buy strategic Green Belt land because of the Tory party’s positions on the Green Belt.

 Separately from the political handbrake on development, many Local Plans are currently stalled because of the thorny issue of nutrient neutrality which has reached somewhat of an impasse and would benefit from more political attention.

 In every case, local politics, including resident sentiment, is at the root of the problem: local residents resist development and the councillors that represent them fear an own-goal, scored by the notorious ‘political football’.  However, as the cost of living and the lack of affordable places for many people to live (either buying or renting) worsens, it is possible that we have reached a tipping point as the size of the demographic impacted by the cost of living crisis has increased, gaining a louder voice and influencing political decisions.

 Democracy has had an active role in planning since the first Town and Country Planning Act in 1947. I am not endorsing a US-style, market-led approach to planning which deprives local residents from having a say in the future of their communities. But the result of the next general election cannot be determined by which party has the strongest anti-development stance.

 While there is undoubtedly a role for local voices in development decisions, it is clear from the new towns delivery programme, which required an Act of Parliament and the establishment of development corporations, that housing figures are only ever truly met when decisions are taken outside the remit of local authorities.

 The return of the National Infrastructure Committee and an ‘infrastructure first’ approach which brings together infrastructure, housing, energy and climate change in a de-politicised environment to expedite the creation of new settlements is part of the solution. In doing so - removing the influence of politics in the allocation of land - there is much that we could learn from the German or Dutch systems.  Germany’s strategic planning decisions are made through a series of regional plans at a federal level; the Netherlands has a system more akin to a single national plan.  Both countries are seen as having exemplary planning systems which allows development to proceed largely unhampered by political interference.

 In the UK, the closest we ever have got to this model was the Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS).  RSSs established a spatial vision and strategy specific to a region, for example, including the identification of areas for development with a 20 year timescale while also providing direction for Local Development Frameworks on a local (borough / district) level.

 The RSSs provided a cohesive approach to housing targets and transport planning and regionally-specific policies in a way which is so problematic within the two-tier system.  Even then, politics hampered progress: they were never allowed time to crystallise and were ultimately withdrawn before they had chance to come to fruition. 

 As the new towns programme shows, when planning works, it is top-down, rather than bottom up.  Ideally, a national spatial plan is required to kick-start development and properly plan for development that this country needs. Community involvement would have a role to play within this national approach.  But the engagement process must be efficient (is three rounds of consultation on a design code alone really the best route to fast-tracking development?), and it must be consistent across the country.  As Neighbourhood Planning has demonstrated, the potential for a specific community to impact on planning decisions lies in that community’s demographic: those communities with a professional, prosperous and permanent demographic are likely to exert more power on local issues than deprived areas and those with more transient communities. This factor cannot be changed by sound bites and empty promises; only through a very long-term investment in community development, creating genuine opportunities for involvement and involving a representative sample of the local community can this be achieved. To do so would require the planning system to pay more attention to the ‘hard to reach’ – for example the young, those in full time work or those busy raising children –  those people who are perhaps more likely to be in need of affordable housing options.

 As recent politics has demonstrated, speeches berating development of greenfield land and political surrender on housing targets can bring about short-term political success – or at least until now. But to create and implement new settlements, and in doing so, to achieve the (political) goal of levelling up and providing the housing that this country needs, requires a long-term commitment.  Enabling this– if necessary, by relinquishing political power – could achieve real success, including a lasting legacy for which politicians could be proud.

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