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Hilary Benn – “local communities should decide”

Hilary Benn pic A somewhat surprising alliance between the Daily Telegraph and Labour’s shadow secretary for Communities and Local Government – Hilary Benn – has emerged this morning, with an article by Hilary Benn headlined “The Coalition have got it wrong over planning”.

So let us recall what the Coalition (or rather the Conservative policies adopted by the Coalition) have done in planning.  They have abolished the “hated top-down housing targets”, hand in hand with the creation of “localism”, abolished the Infrastructure Planning Commission quango and put sustainable development in the centre of the presumption in favour of development, rephrased as the presumption in favour of sustainable development.

And now let us consider what Mr Benn says.  “Local communities should decide where they want new homes and developments to go and then give their consent in the form of planning permission.”  This is just what Eric Pickles says, and what the Conservatives have been saying since well before the last election. But they should not get all the credit, because John Prescott said much the same thing.  His 2004 reforms of the local plan system were driven by his belief that if you gave people a say early enough in the system they would engage and be able to decide what should be built and where.  He, Hilary Benn and indeed the current administration repeatedly protest that if you give local people the power to decide they will take responsible decisions.

Second Mr Benn says that unpopular and inappropriate developments permitted by a national quango reporting direct to  ministers will give rise to much anger.  The quango in question here is the highly respected Planning Inspectorate which will take decisions when local authorities are designated because, for example, they are too slow.  The decision is actually to be taken by the Secretary of State.  The democratic safeguard of a report to ministers is there, though Benn seems to criticise it.  Were it to be missing, I would agree with him.  But significantly, the last Labour administration put in place the Infrastructure Planning Commission which took decisions with no democratic accountability.  I haven’t checked how Mr Benn voted, though he is likely to have followed the Government whip and voted for that.

What about sustainable development. Mr Benn’s article is silent on this but the Telegraph has some information from the Labour party: “Labour sources said last night that the party would scrap the Coalition’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which came into force earlier this
year and requires councils to promote “sustainable development” in planning decisions.”  Now I thought that sustainable development was a good thing.  But the DT at least seems think differently:  “This newspaper’s Hands Off Our Land campaign last year led to the Government
watering down changes in the NPPF, although it still contained a bias in favour of sustainable development.”  But Benn opens his article with a critique of the NPPF, complaining that local authorities were given only 12 months to get their plans in place, or the NPPF presumptions would take precedence.  This really is disingenuous.  The plans in question are those being drawn up under John Prescott’s Planning and Compensation Act 2004 – almost a decade has passed for councils to get those plans in place.  More accurately, 65 years will have passed next month since the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 came into force which placed local development plans at the heart of the system, but which experience has shown are slow in the making.

In his drive to give local communities full decision making power Mr Benn concludes that in his experience if you give people responsibility for these things they will respond.  “If they get it wrong there will be no-one else to blame for the lack of new homes” he says.  But there will be someone else responsible – the Governments which abdicate responsibility for taking the unpopular decisions the nation needs.


1 comment to Hilary Benn – “local communities should decide”

  • “But there will be someone else responsible – the Governments which abdicate responsibility for taking the unpopular decisions the nation needs.”

    Quite, we need an objective and proactive planning system rather than a subjective reactive regime where the loudest voices win out.

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