Planning for Growth? Don’t hold your breath

If you are looking to build something new in England – whether it’s housing for people who would love to get on the property ladder, light industrial units to help small businesses kick-start the much needed economic recovery, or specialist care facilities for society’s most vulnerable – you might have been pleasantly surprised earlier this year.

The Chancellor’s Budget, way back in March, trumpeted Planning for Growth as the cornerstone for economic recovery and promised a more streamlined planning system where the default answer for sustainable development was “yes”.

Publication of the draft National Planning Policy Framework at the end of July seemed to build upon that heady promise. Cutting down the mass of national planning guidance from 1,000s of pages to a mere 58 appeared to perfectly demonstrate the Government’s desire to cut through the red tape and give budding entrepreneurs, or seasoned old house builders, the freedom to build a better future (to steal from the last Labour manifesto…)

But then came the backlash and it’s much more fierce than I think anyone in government expected. Ministers would have expected criticism from the CPRE, which appears to view any form of new development outside of city limits with deep scepticism, and the good folk at the Woodland Trust. Perhaps though, they weren’t expecting the Daily Telegraph, that most august of Conservative supporting newspapers, to pick up the reins and launch its ‘Hands Off Our Land’ campaign.

The Telegraph represents a formidable foe and the Government knows it. Ministers who confidently proclaimed only days ago that there’d be no backtracking on this issue will now be thinking very carefully about their position. There are still many raw memories in Westminster of waiting to see what the Telegraph would publish next as it drip-fed a hungry public titbits during the expenses scandal.

The desire to provide the best environment for economic recovery remains imperative to the Treasury and BIS. But the Government has developed an unfortunate reputation for caving in to public pressure and the campaigners against planning reform smell blood in the water. The Chancellor may wish to stand his ground and support the Planning Minister, but that ground becomes increasingly shaky while growth figures fail to meet projections and another wave of opposition – this time from the Public Sector against cuts – threatens to destabilise him even further.

The consultation period for the draft National Planning Policy Framework end on 17th October. Don’t be surprised if the Government announces another ‘Pause, listen, reflect and improve’ moment not that long thereafter.

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