The government’s proposed shake up of planning law looks suspiciously like the proposals they opposed when not in government. From my uneducated view, planning reforms all seem like government attempts to stimulate the economy by making it easier to attract capital investment, ultimately generating revenue from land.
But planning is one of those areas where democracy gets a little inconvenient. While MPs might like economic stimulation in principle, it’s less attractive in the form of a new power station, supersewer or runway in their constituency, particularly if there’s a lynch mob of local voters campaigning against such things.
That’s why poor George Osborne is leading the planning liberalisation agenda in Westminster but, according to today’s Guardian, signing petitions in Cheshire against an energy-from-waste plant that will be easier to build if his reforms go through.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it does highlight an imbalance in local opinion that few politicians are prepared to confront. I have been guilty of this myself. As the former Labour candidate for Chelsea and Fulham a local paper asked me my view of the Heathrow third runway issue. I desperately equivocated in my response, not because I didn’t want to confront the assumptions of my potential voters, but because I didn’t want a comment from me to be used against Andy Slaughter in Hammersmith, defending a real battleground seat. So even though I thought the government had the policy right on balance, I wouldn’t say so unambiguously.
This is something I also experienced as a councillor. Having to make planning decisions was a nightmare and councillors are notionally protected by an obligation to act in a quasi-judicial manner. When making planning decisions, councillors are required to act according to the law, not according to public opinion.
When taking part in these decisions, I was horrified at the extent to which colleagues would be swayed by residents associations on the occasions when their arguments were simply based on anger and conservatism. More enlightened councillors would offer guidance on how objections could be framed with some reference to actual planning laws.
So I have been thinking for some time how politicians can broaden the perspectives of local planning campaigners and I have come to the conclusion that there might be a market solution.
My thoughts keep coming back to the idea of a utility precept. I don’t mean utility in the industrial sense – though there is overlap. I mean it in the sense of usefulness.
Thinking on a national scale, there are planning applications in many places where the benefits of development are felt far more widely than the area most affected by the harms. In Chelsea and Fulham they are up in arms against some short term inconvenience in the building of a multiple-billion pound supersewer down the Thames, which will benefit millions of people for a century or more.
In Llandudno there have been campaigns against an offshore wind farm, land based wind farms in some parts of the country are less popular than herpes and of course George Osborne would rather see coal imported from across the world (certainly not mined here!) and burnt than have a waste to energy plant in his constituency.
The utility precept would apply a gentle pressure for common sense, but also redress the unfairness that some communities do more for the wider country than others.
Imagine that when a planning application is submitted the applicant submits with it an audited impact assessment for any area for which that application represents a measurable harm or benefit. That impact assessment would include a “bid” for a precept from the benefiting local authorities to be paid to the harmed local authority areas.
If the development is built, the precept is enacted. So for example, if the net harm to a local area of having a wind farm were calculated at 150,000 pounds per year, but the benefit were calculated to be spread evenly across 150 local authorities, they would each pay 1,000 pounds per year to that single authority, adjusted for population or other relevant factors.
It would require a national precepting authority and a tribunal to resolve disagreements and to set precedents in order to make the impact analyses consistent and cheap to develop. But it would have a wonderful effect in the longer term. Areas that by policy encouraged developments that would attract utility precept money would be able to enhance services or cut taxes for their local residents at the expense of those areas that refused to do so. Their net precepting cost would just grow each year as they benefited from developments in other authorities. The impact on local taxes and services would eventually force local people to confront the implications of excessive nimbyism.
But there’s another benefit too. Sometimes developments get built even in the face of opposition. So if a bit of a park had to be closed in Chelsea and Fulham for a couple of years while a sewer is built, even if they didn’t want the money, the rest of London would have given it to them.
Just a little contribution to say thank you and to remind them that we really are all in this together.