Taken from the April 2014 issue of Housebuilder magazine.
The great thing about having carte blanche in this column is that I end up getting into discussions with readers. I had just such a debate with a thoughtful, well informed, planner who, Heavens knows why, took exception to my throwaway assertion that planners are to blame for lack of innovation in the housing industry in last month's issue.
Thinking it through, I realised that I am often guilty of abusing planners, using them as shorthand for what is wrong in our industry when, actually, the fault lies with politicians. These are, after all, the people who shape planning policy; the poor benighted planners merely interpret it.
Take the Green Belt. Was there ever a planning policy that was more laden with political overtones and more open to political expediency?
This happens at all levels. In just the last few weeks we have had Nick Boles announcing streamlined planning practise guidance, one of the centre pieces of which was a reaffirmation of Green Belt protection in which he noted that unmet housing need is unlikely to outweigh harm to the Green Belt. So important was this in the current political scheme of things that it came only behind “issuing robust guidance on flood risk”. Could the restatement of the primacy of Green Belt have anything to do with us being just a year away from a general election with several Tory councils facing Green Belt challenges?
At a local level, I have one client pursuing an allocation on a Green Belt site in the South East. This site is in the heart of a village surrounded on three sides by buildings, in an authority which is woefully shy of meeting even its own estimates of the five year housing supply. The site is in the ward of the Council leader and the Chairman of the Planning Policy Committee. Would communities coalesce if the Green Belt boundary were re-drawn? No. Is there any chance councillors will vote to allocate the site? No.
Green Belt is one area where all would be well served by allowing planners to make the decisions. That way, anomalies such as the one faced by my client would be resolved. And the overwhelming idiocy of a policy that displaces development to pretty rural authorities just outside the Green Belt boundary so as to protect pretty rural authorities nearer major cities would be solved.