Privatising the planning process? The amended UK Housing & Planning Bill

Guest post:

Malcolm Tait is a planner who teaches at the University of Sheffield. He is particularly interested in the ways in which planning is seen as a public activity and the extent to which it makes better places. His previous research has focused on how trust is built in planning and he is currently working on projects about plan-making and how we might create better cities for older people. Malcolm is currently writing a book, with Kiera Chapman, about how space has been conceived by planners and others over the past 250 years.

Decisions... by alexmartin81 on Flickr

Ever submitted a planning application, and thought ‘this is going to take a long time, tied up in Council bureaucracy’? Well, in changes made by ministers to the Housing & Planning Bill, currently going through Parliament, you might have the answer to your worries. Ministers are now proposing a pilot, in which applicants for planning permission can use ‘alternative providers’ instead of relying on council planners to process the application and make recommendations to a planning committee. It could be seen as sort of analogous to ‘going private’ for your healthcare or, to use an analogy closer to planning, of choosing to use an ‘approved inspector’ for your building regulations. However, this seemingly innocuous proposal to allow the ‘customers’ of planning a little more choice is in fact a key attack on one of the fundamental elements of planning.

One of the hallmarks of planning in the UK is that those wanting to build upon or change the use of a given piece of land need to apply in the first instance to their local council (or Local Planning Authority, to use the jargon). Your application will be assessed by a planning officer working for the council, who in turn will advise politicians with ultimate responsibility for deciding whether to approve or reject your application. So, why does it matter who advises those politicians – surely anyone qualified as a planner could do so? The answer lies in the trust that we place in planners and local councils.

Much of my work over the past 10 years has investigated the extent to which we trust planners to take decisions about planning. One of the crucial relationships is that between the planning officer and the politicians who take decisions on many planning applications. The politicians, in particular, have to trust that the planner is giving them sound and insightful advice. Furthermore, members of the public want to know that planning applications are rigorously scrutinized, and that those making decisions have the full facts before them.

The move to ‘alternative providers’ breaks this relationship. It will be up to the applicant to decide who will provide that advice, and politicians will be obliged to trust the advice provided. This will inevitably lead to suspicions that these ‘alternative providers’ have an incentive to cast their client’s planning application in the best possible light. In contrast to building regulations, planning in the UK does not work to one set of rigidly defined standards – it involves the interpretation of (often vague) policy in application to complex cases. What weight, for example, should be given to a slightly negative environmental assessment?

Other problems raise their head too – how do we stop conflicts of interest between ‘alternative providers’? How is this going to stack up financially – after all, last year, councils in England spent £450m subsidising the processing of planning applications? Which types of applications can ‘alternative providers’ process – presumably not the 90% or so of minor applications that are decided by planning officers, as Ministers promise that planning committees will retain the final say?

The bottom line is that getting planning permission is not like buying a car, or even getting healthcare – it is not a market transaction, but something that is in the gift of the state to award or refuse. The amended Housing & Planning Bill will only make such decisions more opaque.