A national solution to a local challenge

At two recent public consultations, I witnessed two very different planning regimes. A residential development (TCPA) and a power project (NSIP- national infrastructure project/DCO – development consent order). They were superficially similar – dusty hall, exhibition boards and expensive consultants. Both were attended by a fraction of the community. One will be determined by “lay” councillors, with “political” considerations often weighing as heavily as planning policy or the officer’s advice. The other by an expert but remote, national inspectorate, insulated from local accountability or concerns.

Both regimes are flawed. For many developments the “apolitical” NSIP process is too bureaucratic, lengthy and technocratic an approach, imposing decisions from above – necessarily so for national projects which are too important to be subject to local decisions. TCPA applications are bedevilled by democracy. Capricious planning committees, often vulnerable to the whims of the uninformed and the self-interested, riding roughshod over policy-focussed planning departments where budget cuts have hollowed out expertise and resource. Is there not scope for a hybrid which blends technical policy expertise with accountability?

Given the national need for more consented land and the prevalence of planning committees beset by councillors with a vested interest in opposing development, why should housing be treated so differently from a new road or other major infrastructure? Is there not a case for greater use of the section 160 changes to Housing and Planning Act 2016 to utilise the NSIP route to drive residential consents?

Every NSIP project could be an opportunity to consent up to 500 homes though the DCO process. But how realistic is it that infrastructure developers will add such risks into their mix? They are not housebuilders after all.

Housing minister Kit Malthouse recognises the problem of under-resourced planning departments and the government is now considering encouraging council partnerships, such as sharing senior planners – perhaps new teams of senior planners at regional level, touring the country delivering planning capacity, for instance where an authority is handling complex applications.

This still leaves the ultimate decisions with councillors. The point about nimbys is that it is their backyard and too often it is this local nature of decision-making that makes it so dysfunctional.

Perhaps for larger residential schemes, the NSIP process offers another way. Making planning more “expert” and less “political”, rather than relying on a national inspectorate which is already over-stretched, we should create a hybrid regime with regional inspectorates under democratic oversight.

Countering the lack of democratic accountability, NSIP offers a far more robust documentation of community feedback and a greater burden of evidence as to why concerns may or may not be considered. This process may not be any quicker, but it would offer more certainty that applications will be considered on the merits of planning policy.

For local authorities, there is a further upside – being advocates for community opinion, without the burden of responsibility resting with those who, by their very local political identities, are not best placed to take decisions informed by policy or the wider public interest.

This article was originally published in the May edition of Housebuilder magazine, our Diamond Partner sponsored publication.