“Delays in the Planning System”

I heard this awful phrase yet again yesterday. The dear old Today programme on BBC Radio 4 were interviewing someone about why so few new houses are being built.

It could equally have been an interview about the shortage of affordable housing. Or even the reason why pop songs are not quite as catchy as they used to be, when we were young. Trains are running late? Well, you see, it is all because of delays in the planning system.

When journalists get trained, are they hypnotised? I wonder, because all you have to say to them is the trigger phrase – delays in the planning system – and they go all quiet and gormless.

So, what is going on here?

Firstly, we know that more houses receive planning permission than are ever built. Like land banks, there are permission banks. Sometimes these are speculative, where the land owner is trying to increase the value of their land by obtaining permission in advance. But just because you have permission to build a copy of the Eiffel Tower in Runcorn, doesn’t mean anyone else thinks they can make money from doing it.

Secondly, the planning system is quasi judicial, with expensive barristers for when the going gets tough. But it is administrative law, mostly going up the chain to Ministers rather than up to the courts. And there is an inequality of arms: the big firms can afford to pay more for barristers than can local authorities, and big firms can hold the threat of recovering costs if the local authority is judged to have been unreasonable in its denial of permission.

So, thirdly, local authorities fight the planning lawyers with bureaucracy. Which leads us to having 27 policy documents and investigations before you can build that wonderful copy of the Eiffel Tower.

But, fourthly, perhaps the biggest factor and by far the least talked about is: location, location, location.

Basically the posh councils have a problem. Everyone living there asks just two things: keep the schools decent and don’t build any new houses near us. But all the house builders want to build in these same posh areas because good location equals good money.

The not-posh councils don’t have this problem, and are often grateful for anything that comes their way, even if the quality is woeful. We have all been on trains or in cars, going past new houses at 50 miles an hour where it is painfully obvious they are far too small to live in, our slums of the future.

So, in a nutshell, delays in the planning system is often code for trying to get permission in the posh areas, often in or near the green belt, where the local voters are saying “no more” and the council they have elected is trying to defend the area from the lawyers of all comers with just a few forms, policies, processes, and ever more meetings.

And finally, I would suggest that a better line of interviewing would challenge such bald statements about delays with the deeper question: does what we are doing currently help in sustainable development, or is it a just a sideshow about money?

Journalists, please note.

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