Houses under construction

Alarm over proposals to strip councils of planning control

EHN Extra spoke to NLGN think tank director Adam Lent about Whitehall’s centralised mindset.
10 June 2020 , Katie Coyne

The director of the think tank the New Local Government Network (NLGN) has slammed a proposal that planning decisions be taken off local councils and given to central government-controlled quangos.

A Sunday Times article (paywall) outlined the government’s move to ease lockdown quickly to avoid job losses. But the report went further, listing other radical proposals.

Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, and Dominic Cummings, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s senior aide, are reported to have set up a panel of experts to advise on a radical shakeup of planning laws, handing control of decisions from councils to government-owned development corporations.

Adam Lent, the director of NLGN, posted the Sunday Times article on Twitter, saying this was a “terrible idea for at least seven reasons” and proceeded to list them. He tweeted: “Given how comprehensively the government is banjaxing the pandemic response, why on earth would you hand something as significant as planning over to them?”

Speaking to EHN Extra, Lent said: “The notion that somehow putting it in the hands of central governments will streamline the process is just for the birds really. You just end up with ongoing legal challenges and the system becoming discredited over time.

“That does seem to a mindset emerging in central government, which looks to sideline local government in key decisions, that's come out quite clearly through the pandemic, and I wonder whether floating this idea is part of that.

“But it's a really, really dangerous mindset. Councils are not perfect by any means, and I am perfectly willing to accept that. But you can't cut out councils and then think that you're not also going to cut out the voices of local communities because you will. Because really, local councils at the moment are the only real institutional route we have in to allowing local communities to have a voice over big decisions that affect them.”

Lent argued that there is an “easy Whitehall view” that local authorities are slow at making planning decisions, and that central government could somehow speed up and simplify the process. But he said planning takes time because local communities care passionately about these issues, and will challenge decisions in the courts.

“Those decisions have been taken in councils because they're democratically accountable and they have inevitably a detailed knowledge of local issues and local sensitivities around planning. If you wrench that away from councils and put it in to a quango, which is mainly accountable to central government, you rip out that local democratic accountability. And you also risk that local concerns, local sensitivities, local issues will not be taken into account when planning decisions are made.

“You could imagine a situation where a major decision has to be made about the location of a major utility, a power station or something like that. And I imagine part of the thinking here on the part of the government is that you would streamline the process. But what streamlined means basically is that, local and community concerns are cut out of the picture.”

He added: “The worst case scenario is that you would see the whole planning system brought into serious disrepute as more and more projects got the green light without local involvement and local accountability.

“You can see where councils themselves have got into trouble in the past because they haven't fully taken into account local concerns. You know, so the case of the Haringey redevelopment is a good example. There are a whole bunch of issues around that. But one of the concerns there was that local feeling wasn't fully taken into account. And in the end, the project had to be abandoned in its current form.”

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