Fears Bill could see two-tier planning system

Liz Peace
Liz Peace
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THE Government’s Localism Bill is in danger of creating a two-tier planning system with strong leadership in some towns and cities and activist groups threatening to derail every development in others, according to developer Hammerson.

Robin Dobson, head of retail, warned the bill could make it easier for groups in some parts of the UK to block developments rather than make it easier for projects to go ahead.

Speaking at a panel debate, Planning for Localism, at Leeds Metropolitan University, Mr Dobson said: “The ability to formerly consult with the electorate on a project early on in the process, before going to planning, has to be a good thing.

“The negative side is that it will almost create a two-tier system – strong towns and cities but potentially because certain groups have greater power they have the opportunity to derail good developments in places where the leadership isn’t as good.”

Sam Schofield, director of communications consultancy PPS Group, added: “It is an area that is fraught with danger. If you allow people to express their views before the planning process it’s very hard to change their minds if they are against it further down the line.”

More than 100 people attended the debate, which was organised by the British Property Federation (BPF) in association with law firm Squire Sanders Hammonds and communications consultancy PPS, to discuss the impact of the bill on development in Yorkshire.

The Localism Bill, which is currently before Parliament, covers a huge range of issues, from governance to standards, business rates to planning, community empowerment to housing, and aims to give local communities more control over development.

The Government has offered to rewrite parts of the bill to “clarify” concerns that the environment could be sacrificed to pave the way for development.

Ministers launched a robust defence of the plans earlier this week but admitted that in simplifying guidance for planners some sections may not be sufficiently clear.

The changes which aim to simplify the planning process contain a “presumption in favour of sustainable development”, which ministers say will boost growth while protecting the environment and countryside.

But campaigners, such as the National Trust, fear the reforms will lead to a return to damaging development, by putting the emphasis in favour of building rather than protecting green spaces. Liz Peace, chief executive of the BPF, who chaired the event, said the organisation wanted to see a stronger emphasis on brownfield development in the Draft National Planning Policy Framework.

Bob May, office director at Leeds-based planning consultancy Turley Associates, said the Localism Bill was nothing new.

“We were generally underwhelmed when it came out,” he said. “It’s not the radical shake-up that has been trumpeted.”

He added: “We are just being reminded to plan sensibly. Presumption in favour of development has been around since 1947.”

Meanwhile, David Goodman, partner at Squire Sanders Hammonds, said the lack of regional strategy was an important issue. “A lot of detail in the bill will be very important,” he said.

The Localism Bill introduces “neighbourhood plans” which would see parish councils and “neighbourhood forums” come together to decide where new shops, offices or homes should go and what green spaces to protect – which is then voted on by local people in local referendums.

However, Andy Taylor, economic development programmes manager at Bradford Council, warned resources would be an issue and Mr Schofield added that 99 per cent of people who set up neighbourhood plans would do so to block rather than encourage development.

The panel agreed that developers who engaged with communities of proposed developments early on in the process were those who were most successful.

Mr Schofield said: “Multi-stage engagement is the key. If you start off by asking people what they want to see in their local communities and build up a detailed plan it is better than going in with a detailed scheme which is seen as a fait accompli.”

Half the audience said they wanted to reinstate redevelopment agencies, which were abolished under the coalition Government and replaced with local enterprise partnerships.

Federation in reforms row

The British Property Federation found itself in the middle of the row over planning reforms this week after reports Conservative minister Greg Clark urged developers to “press the case” amid fears the Prime Minister might be “spooked” by the backlash against them.

Private emails revealed the BPF believed it had “earned more brownie points than we could ever imagine” by helping him, according to a newspaper report.

A spokesman for Department for Communities and Local Government, which has drawn up the National Planning Policy Framework, said it was factually inaccurate to suggest the minister had urged the BPF or anyone else to lobby the Prime Minister.

And the BPF chief executive Liz Peace said the organisation’s support did not amount to “collusion”. She added that the BPF did not agree with everything in the draft reforms.