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MPs warn that England needs more than a vacuum for strategic planning

17 March 2011

The intended abolition of regional spatial planning strategies leaves a vacuum at the heart of the English planning system which could have profound social, economic and environmental consequences set to last for many years, says the all party Commons Communities and Local Government Committee.

Launching a report of a recent inquiry examining the abolition of England's regional strategic planning system, Clive Betts, chair of the Communities & Local Government Committee, said:

"Regional Spatial Strategies (RSSs) bridged the gap between those planning issues determined by local policy or concern, and those subject to policy goals defined at a national level – such as those for housing or renewable energy.

Wedid not pass judgment on the merits of regional spatial strategies, but we are concerned about the hiatus created by their intended abolition.

This is giving rise to an inertia that is likely to hinder development - making it much harder to deliver necessary but controversial or emotive 'larger than local' facilities - such as waste disposal sites, mineral workings or sites for gypsies and travellers. It will also make it more difficult to ensure that our national need for new housing is met," adds Mr Betts.

The committee is also concerned about the lack of robust and consistent evidence to support local development plans.

"It is not acceptable for Ministers to abdicate their responsibilities in this regard by leaving all the responsibility with under-resourced and under-skilled local planning authorities," says Clive Betts.

The committee warns the Government that it must act quickly to bring forward appropriate transitional arrangements compliant with the existing law for the period before RSSs are abolished.

Likewise, says the committee, the Government must ensure that a coherent, efficient planning system for the future will recognise and relate to issues from the point of view of many players operating on different levels: individuals, developers, community and resident groups, businesses, local authorities, and central Government.

"Most importantly," says Clive Betts, "ministers must develop a persuasive and effective framework capable of handling 'larger-than-local' or contentious planning issues within which all stakeholders can be involved in those challenging decisions which cannot be taken at a purely local level. "

There also needs to be a strengthened local authority ‘duty to co-operate’ and a better understanding of where Local Enterprise Partnerships will fit into these new planning arrangements."

The New Homes Bonus incentive scheme

The committee warns that the hiatus in planning created by the abolition of RSSs will hamper the UK's economic recovery and delay new house building.

"We welcome the Government’s recognition that we need to build more houses, and its commitment to deliver 150,000 affordable homes over the next four years (although this is not an exceptional number by historic standards). However, we question the likelihood of achieving this increase through the New Homes Bonus," says Clive Betts.

"There is no evidence this mechanism will increase housing supply by 8 - 13% in the way that ministers predict. Indeed, it became clear during this inquiry that estimates for new house building contained in local authorities’ plans have already fallen by 200,000 following the decision to abolish RSSs.

We conclude that this Government may face a stark choice between whether to build fewer homes than its predecessors, or abandon its commitment to promote localism in decisions of this kind," adds Clive Betts.

The committee is also concerned that the Government’s proposals may be inimical to the plan-led system on which planning in this country is supposed to be based.

"The New Homes Bonus scheme needs to keep the local development plan at its heart, where planning decisions are based on sound evidence and sustainability criteria.

As currently designed, the New Homes Bonus risks giving councils an incentive to permit new house-building of the wrong type and in the wrong places. This could create unsustainable communities and is unlikely to achieve the Government's objective to reduce conflict in the planning system." adds Clive Betts.

The committee therefore calls for the New Homes Bonus to be linked explicitly to the delivery of homes provided for in local plans following robust assessments of housing need.

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