Permitted Development Proposals Get Themselves Into a Right Pickle.
Eric Pickle's recent amendments to permitted development proposals to allow 'monster' domestic extensions up to eight metres without planning permission, now with the support of neighbours is to be presented to the House of Lords this week as they debate the Growth and Infrastructure Bill. This blog argues that this is a costly distraction from the growth agenda where the core issues of availability of finance and a clear coherent plan and institutional response for recovery are conveniently being bypassed. The Growth and Infrastructure Bill has a mishmash of proposals that together create uncertainty and confusion. Furthermore, it represents a government desperate for headline-grabbing initiatives rather than confronting the more powerful and financial interests that hold the key to unlocking the growth agenda.
The extensions initiative was launched based on the idea that planners (still seen as the enemy of enterprise) were somehow preventing growth due to the bureaucracy and delays involved. A relaxation of planning controls for three years, it was argued, would lead to growth.
Now a good policy intervention would identify a problem based on clear evidence and then, using consultation with experts and publics, identify alternatives to address the problem followed by a comprehensive assessment of these leading to a favoured approach.
Unfortunately none of these required ingredients were present with the extensions policy.
What is the problem regarding extensions? Most are approved and planners only intervene when there is a detrimental impact on the immediately landscape in terms of neighbour impact and design quality and also where cumulative impact might give rise to increased flooding risk and loss of green space. This ensures that good development takes place.
Is there any evidence of a problem of such extensions being refused? No.
Is there any evidence of a bottleneck of applications in local planning authorities exceeding the 8 week consultation period resulting in huge and unnecessary delays? No.
Is there any evidence that the policy intervention will result in growth and more extensions? No
So the policy was based on a presumption that planners are still somehow the enemy of growth without a shred of evidence. This is BAD policy.
So has Eric Pickles recent intervention or U turn allowing neighbours the chance to comment on such proposals addressed the problem? Not really.
Neighbours do not necessarily have the ability to judge cumulative impact of proposals such as the loss of gardens leading to increased water run off and flooding. They do not necessarily have the ability to judge good and appropriate design. Crucially, they also may be reluctant to speak out against a neighbour for fear of reprisals given that any objections would not be anonymous.
The change still reflects the fallacy that planners are people that seek to delay much needed development. But most planners want development as much as politicians. The only difference is that they are trained to make recommendations in conjunction with their own professional training taking into account the views of the public and elected members. This prevents powerplays and non- material considerations distorting planning decisions. Pickles proposals will actually encourage this to happen.
However, the extensions issue is not the only policy intervention into permitted development territory as part of the growth agenda. There is also a damaging proposal to allow employment/business use to be converted to residential use without planning permission. The presumption being that if land can not be developed for employment then residential could be a quick fix to stimulate the economy. This is bad policy as it takes away much needed employment land which is in short supply nationwide. New houses also need employment sites. It also promotes a disconnect as employment sites do not necessarily have the community infrastructure and services required and also have higher noise environments surrounding them which can lead to music and entertainment venues being closed creating a further loss of business use.
Perhaps more perversely it goes against the principles of localism as it takes away local authority discretion to decide how to use their land. It is clear that most local authorities are seeking exemptions from this policy and are bitterly opposed to it and yet the government are adamant that this is required to promote growth and will not listen.
For me the focus on permitted development is a distraction as government needs to get its act together to deliver much needed growth and development across this country. It is not growth at any cost; it is securing the right development in the right place. At Birmingham City University I train planners for the future equipping them with the skills to make good decisions not quick fixes. It is a skilled profession and it would be really good if for once the government would stop interfering whether it be with planning, education or health agendas and perhaps look more critically at how their own actions are stifling the very growth agenda they are seeking to promote.