NEWS ANALYSIS: Planning proposals divide opinion

The recently published Planning White Paper has sparked a public affairs battle, with lobbyists arguing for and against the proposals aimed at speeding up the planning process. Robert Gray reviews the situation.

Gordon Brown is still a few weeks away from assuming the mantle of Prime Minister, but his burgeoning influence on legislative proposals is already clear. The hotly debated Planning White Paper (PWP) published last week has its roots in the reports by Kate Barker and Rod Eddington on the reform of major infrastructure planning.

It has also lit the touch-paper on a mighty public affairs battle, with a myriad of lobbyists arguing for and against the proposals.

The PWP proposes streamlining the Town and Country Planning system to speed up minor developments such as loft conversions. It also outlines reform of the decision-making process for nationally significant infrastructure pro­jects in areas such as waste, energy and transport. A major proposal is the creation of an Independent Planning Commission (IPC) to rule on key projects.

Speeding up planning process
The intention is to improve transparency and speed up what can be an onerous and costly planning process. For example, it took seven years to reach a decision on Heathrow Terminal 5.

CBI director-general Richard Lambert gave the PWP a warm welcome, castigating the current planning regime as being ‘bogged down in a quagmire of red tape and bureaucracy’. The employers’ body has been an enthusiastic champion of planning liberalisation.

It has been supported by bodies representing major developers and property owners such as the BPF and Home Builders Federation. Energy group E.ON UK, which plans to invest £3bn in new power stations and wind farms, applauded the PWP as a means of accelerating many schemes that have been held up in planning for years.

Other obvious winners are the major supermarket groups, which have persuaded the government to amend the ‘needs’ test that currently prevents some operators accessing areas where a single brand has a monopoly.

Less enamoured are environmental and countryside groups, many of which believe the proposals are overly ­favourable to business and may diminish the influence of local people and communities. Like-minded NGOs including Friends of the Earth (FoE), RSPB, Campaign to Protect Rural England and Civic Trust have banded together to form the Planning Disaster Coalition. With consultation running until 17 August, a flurry of lobbying and campaigning is sure to intensify.

FoE has been among the most vocal opponents so far. Its planning co-ordinator, Hugh Ellis, was widely quoted in the media last week, attacking the Government’s proposed limiting of local involvement in major decision-making, using the analogy that people won’t be able to object to a new nuclear power plant in their community but may be consulted over what colour gate it has.

However, the feeling that the PWP is close to the Prime Minister-elect’s heart makes many think that the Planning Disaster Coalition faces an uphill struggle. ‘This white paper has Gordon Brown’s fingerprints all over it,’ says Stephen Byfield, managing director at property planning PR specialist PPS.

‘I don’t believe the green lobby will ­secure significant changes to the White Paper as the proposals are already a balancing act between the need to speed up the system and not to alienate middle Britain.’

Some observers believe that the green lobby’s greatest chance is to form strategic alliances with the local government lobby and focus their attentions on the Lords stages of the Bill. By playing the long game and identifying objectives clearly, they may secure some changes.

An encouraging precedent was the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. This was taken apart and ­reviewed clause by clause as it passed through Parliament and ministers were forced to concede a number of amendments, particularly during the Lords stages.

Implications for development
Beyond the lobbying, it is expected that the contents of the Act will have implications for the communications activities planned around property developments.

‘The importance of opening good communication channels with the local community will become even more important far earlier in the planning process, to help mitigate against opposition once the scheme reaches the IPC,’ says Bell Pottinger Public Affairs senior consultant Christopher Parr. ‘But even more important will be the lobbying companies should be doing over the next 18 months to influence the drafting of the Planning Policy Statements, which are intended to shape public policy on major infrastructure for decades to come.’

Sebastian Hanley, vice-president at FD Tamesis, predicts that planning comms is set to become far more localised. ‘Changes to statements of community involvement will mean each council has a slightly different approach to planning consultations.’

Camargue director Jenny Marshall, meanwhile, hopes that the PWP ­emerges undiluted as it will spell good news for her developer clients.

A more streamlined planning process should yield more development ­opportunities. ‘It is highly likely that with a leaner, faster and more efficient planning process, local authorities will also be more inclined to release land for development,’ she says. ‘Again, this will create opportunities for developers and property lobbyists.’

Depending on your perspective, this is either wonderful news or a planning disaster.

The planning battle...

Andrew Teacher, media manager, British Property Federation: ‘We support the Government as it is saying what we’ve been saying for years.

How­ever, there’s no point in an Indepen­dent Plan­ning Commission making deci­sions that a green group then overturns in court.’
Clare Harbord, head of UK comms, E.ON: ‘Our strategy following the White Paper will build on our existing programme of politi­cal engagement. We’re keen to develop a long-term consensus at Westminster around energy diversity.’

Patrick Grady, campaig­ner, Ramblers’ Asso­ciation: ‘If the changes go ahead, there will be an impor­tant role for NGOs in lobbying for sustain­ability and climate-friendly initia­tives.

This will need to be locked into any Planning Policy State­ments on the transport infrastructure.’
Simon Marsh, head of planning and regional policy, RSPB: ‘We will be briefing MPs as the RSPB and as part of the coali­tion. There will be a campaign to generate public support during the consultation and we will provide a detailed response.’

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