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Planning through an Election year

An election year, especially a general election year, brings with it many challenges to most of the UK population except those lucky enough to be either  too young to understand it or maybe too old to be interested as life has taught them that nothing in reality changes. Unfortunately to the rest of the population a general election year means seemingly endless television and radio interviews, countless newspaper articles and oft never to be read leaflets in the post bombarding us all with the wise and not so wise thoughts  of the political parties all promising a better life after 7th May. Now away from work some of this can be captivating, mildly amusing, boring or damn right annoying in all sorts of combinations depending upon whether you’re a Jeremy Paxman or whatever the opposite of Jeremy is called, but to those of us involved in planning and development an election year brings with it a particular type of challenge- To submit or not to submit – your planning application that is.

To planners, both in the public and in the private sector whether it is a local election, a general election or worse of all both, May 7th affects the way decisions are taken (or not taken as is often the case) in the months leading up to the day of voting. For Council elections the effects are usually limited to the months from January to May where councillors become ever more wary of making unpopular decisions that might cost votes. However in a general election year the political repercussions upon decision making both in Local and National Government has affected decision-making at all levels of the planning system from around summer 2014 and the effects have been far more significant.

In planning the normal rule of thumb to be followed is to avoid taking politically sensitive applications to committee in the months before an election; unless of course the local authority planner concerned is looking to get a few refusals off his or her desk. Equally for Plan making, elections can result in months of delay whilst politically difficult policies are put into a box to gather dust until after May 7th. The planners’ rule also extends to the first few committees following an election where new members may be voting on pre-election promises and/or where the new Government has promised a range of reforms to planning policy so in an election year judging when you should submit your application needs careful planning.

The only thing that planners can be sure of in an election year is that nothing is certain and that decision making will become increasingly more unpredictable and delays more inevitable. The obvious strategy would therefore be to avoid the risk of taking any controversial decision in the months leading up to May 7th and be wary of the first few post-election committees be this for planning applications or Plan making. As regards planning appeals, the main problem with a general election year is the increasing likelihood that the Secretary of State will call-in or recover any appeal that he feels requires him to demonstrate to the national press his commitment to his party’s planning policies. So in the months leading up to the 2015 election any appeal involving Green Belt or neighbourhood planning has been an easy target for DCLG to become involved.

Of course it is not always possible to manoeuvre around elections by delaying the submission of applications or Plan making. For public sector planners there are targets to be met, 5 year supply problems to be addressed and Development Plans to be progressed. For developers/promoters there are contractual obligations that need to be met added to which there is the judgement to be taken on whether post-election planning might make matters more difficult either locally and/or nationally. Which brings me on to the crystal ball gazing that all of us planners need to be doing now to speculate whether the planning World will be more or less favourable to our individual and collective aspirations after May 7th?

So I have been looking at what the main political parties’ are saying about planning in this pre-election period to see whether it will yield any clear pointers on the key issues. I must caveat what follows by saying that I have focussed upon the key issues that primarily concern housing development rather than transport infrastructure or retailing etc and I have limited my research to the three main political parties plus UKIP and the Green Party or else the task would have become unmanageable.  Also for my research I have relied upon information published by the RTPI so please direct any blame for any miss-information to the RTPI and not to me. So in no particular order of priority of topic this is my interpretation of each party’s position:

Housing Numbers

Statistically the Liberals out-trump Labour promising to deliver 300,000 homes a year whilst for Labour the promise is 200,000 each year to 2020. I couldn’t find a specific commitment from the Conservatives to build a set number of houses each year which might be explained by the party’s dislike of top down numbers or perhaps a target has not yet been decided. The same goes for UKIP and the Green Party.

Green Belt

The Conservative policy on Green Belt is to continue to protect it with no sign of any relaxation in approach. Recent Ministerial statements have made it clear that the protection of the Green Belt is an important Conservative commitment and that matters such as the need to meet a Council’s OAN does not in itself justify the release of Green Belt. This means that Green Belt release is a matter for individual Councils to determine through Local Plan formulation and it is not for the Government or Government appointed planning inspectors to override local decision making on Green Belt boundaries. Similarly UKIP policy is to protect Green Belts and although I couldn’t find any specific reference to Green Belt from either the Green Party or the Liberals I would imagine they will not greatly differ in their approach to continuing to afford it strong protection. Whilst there is no clear indication that the Labour party is any less committed to the protection of the Green Belt than the other main parties, the Shadow Housing Minister Emma Reynolds has stated that Labour would permit building in the Green Belt to help meet its housing targets.

Brownfield/Greenfield

There is a lot of Party unity on this issue with all parties stressing a commitment to prioritising brownfield development. The Conservatives consider the NPPF already has a brownfield first commitment and have introduced a range of financial incentives to help boost building on brownfield land. Labour has stated that it will up-date the NPPF to bring in a brownfield first policy and to apply a sequential test to development. The Liberal party is equally committed to prioritising brownfield development though acknowledging that brownfield development will not in itself be sufficient to meet its housing targets. UKIP wants changes to the NPPF to make it easier to build on brownfield sites and propose to introduce fiscal measures to assist bringing forward brownfield sites whilst I couldn’t find a specific mention from the Green Party about prioritising brownfield development but the general tenor of their approach given what the party stand for is not dissimilar to the other political parties.

Neighbourhood Planning

A similar consensus from the main parties applies to the commitment to neighbourhood planning. The Conservative Party wants to expand the number of neighbourhood plans in its commitment to bottom-up planning. Labour is also committed to neighbourhood planning and wants to include it in Local Plans to align the two processes more closely. The Liberal Party promises more resources to neighbourhood planning and whilst I could not find any specific reference to neighbourhood planning by UKIP or the Green Party there is no suggestion that either is planning a different approach.

As I have said I have confined my research to the key areas that affect what might evolve as post-election planning policy that will affect housing development. If anyone wants to delve deeper into the matter and find out how many Garden Cities each party is suggesting for example or the intriguing promise by UKIP that planning permission for large-scale developments can be overturned by a referendum triggered by the signatures of 5% of the District or Borough electors collected within three months, then please look at the link on the RTPI website from which I have taken my research

http://www.rtpi.org.uk/briefing-room/general-election-2015/the-manifesto-making-process-and-what-the-political-parties-say/

 So what has my research uncovered for post-election planning policy towards housing development?

  • That there is a general consensus that we need more housing
  • But Green Belt protection will remain unless Labour prevails to release some of it for housing need or unless Councils decide to release it through their Local Plans.
  • Brownfield land is to be prioritised notwithstanding the Liberal party acknowledging it won’t be sufficient to meet housing targets with the Labour party promising a return to the old PPG3 brownfield first approach.
  • Neighbourhood planning is to continue and will be expanded and maybe strengthened in its importance.

In a nutshell then – largely a continuation of pre-election policies but beefed up a bit in some areas perhaps. Oh yes and the Duty to Cooperate is seemingly here to stay to ensure that strategic planning policies are effective!

All in all maybe the usual anxieties about pre-election decision making is unfounded if very little looks like changing in the planning World post-election. One could therefore think that the usual trend of greater delays in decision making and more unpredictable decisions that are occurring in the run-up to the general election has more to do with not making unpopular decisions prior to an election than in the hope that planning policies will change post-election as was more the case in 2010. Or maybe I’m just being cynical!

Mike Jones – Strategic planning director, Richborough Estates

27 February 2015