A better plan

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The interim Barker review into planning is out. It gives a framework for the final report, due out at the end of the year. It calls for responses by 19 September. But will it provide resolution to the problems that beset the planning process?

The government’s objective for planning is worthy. It says it wants a transparent, flexible, predictable, efficient and effective system. It brought in the Planning & Compulsory Purchase Act (2004) to reform local and regional plan-making. It introduced extra funding linked to delivery targets to increase capacity within the system and speed up the decision making process.

According to the government’s own figures, 55 per cent of local authorities are now meeting their target for determining major applications within 13 weeks, up from around 20 per cent in 2003. And 80 per cent of the 150,000 applications processed each year are approved.

Barker’s review aims to consider how, in the context of globalisation, and building on the reforms already put in place in England, planning policy and procedures can better deliver economic growth and prosperity alongside other sustainable development goals.

And we as developers feel we are at the sharp end of the planning process and know well the problems with planning. The interim Barker review gives some gloomy statistics about how much the planning system costs businesses, it finds that the government’s recent reforms are not yet working well, it shows that the number of appeals continues to rise and the proportion of major developments turned down has nearly doubled since the late 1990s (from 13 per cent to 25 per cent), and it rules out a root-and-branch overhaul of the planning system on the grounds that there is little appetite for fresh legislation.

The Barker review has the potential to consider fully the needs of the development community. We, the developers, obviously want to maintain our land supply and supply of real estate product to the industries we serve. At Prologis we have taken the view that our best opportunity to exert influence on the public sector and the planning system they run is to engage with them in the debate and to state our requirements as clearly as we can in a way that demonstrates the broader community benefits.

ProLogis has had much experience of this in recent years: at our mixed development The Bridge in Dartford, in the sustainability beauty parade that saw us win the Sideway site at Stoke-on-Trent, and at other sites.

Planning and land allocation is becoming more lengthy and more demanding. We live on a congested island. We should expect the planning system to continue with this trend and so start to look for an advantage within it.

For the larger developers, we can see some competitive advantage. They have the time and the money to employ the skill-sets required to cope with lengthy planning processes. They also have the time and perspective to assemble the substantial parcels of land with suitable planning permissions.

So, perhaps what we should be saying to Ms Barker and to government is that we are broadly happy with current planning system but we want to see more transparency in it and better funding for it. Is there political appetite for structural reform of the planning system? That’s a question that politicians must answer. Barker identifies where she currently believes reforms can be made:

l Costs of delays. In 2005/06, over a third of appeals dealt with by public inquiry took longer than a year to be decided. Delays to major infrastructure projects are a particular concern.

Need for greater responsiveness to economic and social change. There are inevitable tensions between a system where decisions on land use are made according to plans of up to 15 to 20 years’ duration, and the reality of increasingly rapid economic and social change. Positive planning can support economic growth and regeneration. However, the review finds that significant investments into the UK, as well as the development of high-tech clusters, have been prevented as a result of planning issues.

Lack of responsiveness to price signals. London West End occupation costs are 40 per cent higher than any other city in the world, and prime-site occupation costs in Manchester and Leeds are around 40 per cent higher than in mid-town Manhattan, although further research on the operation of the land market is required before reaching final conclusions.

Survey evidence makes clear that businesses believe there is still more to achieve- according to a recent CBI survey, 69 per cent of firms are dissatisfied with the record of local authorities in improving the planning service.

There is time to make our points to Ms Barker’s team. The report still has some way to go before it is finally submitted. Among the issues that the review will explore in making its final recommendations are:

Efficiency of process. How the planning system can be made more efficient, so that it delivers high quality and sustainable outcomes while providing value for money;

Efficient use of land. Whether current land supply is optimal for development, while protecting environmental interests; and

Flexibility and responsiveness. Can the planning system be made more responsive to price-signals and changing economic circumstances at a local and regional level and will it explore the incentives facing decision makers?

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