The draft National Planning Policy Framework: Hold course; then go further

The government’s proposals to reform Britain’s planning laws have been a welcome island of deregulation in a sea of disappointment.

Both coalition partners went into the 2010 election promising a bonfire of regulation; they created a Reducing Regulation Cabinet Committee and a system of deregulation called “One in, One out”, which has been running since 1 October 2010, yet by February 2011 the Better Regulation minister was admitting in the Commons that not much had actually happened.

But the Draft National Planning Policy Framework is genuinely a step in the right direction. It reduces planning policy from an eye-watering 1,000 pages to a perfectly accessible 65 pages. This is no small matter: irrespective of the content of any regulatory framework, a thousand pages is beyond the ability of anybody to read, comprehend and apply, unless they are a professional with the time and resources to devote to the task. 52 pages, by comparison, is easily managed by an amateur who needs to understand what the national planning rules are – which includes very large numbers of people, including very possibly you, if you or one of your neighbours decides they want to build an extension or develop a piece of land.

Predictably, therefore, it has been met by howls of terror from the usual suspects. Members of parliament’s Communities and Local Government Committee have called on the government to remove the proposed presumption in favour of sustainable development, even though this is in fact already enshrined in existing planning guidelines.

The National Trust persuaded 230,000 people to sign a petition which read

"I believe that the planning system should balance future prosperity with the needs of people and places - therefore I support the National Trust's calls on the Government to stop and rethink its planning reforms."

This is wrong. Both prosperity and places are subsets of “the needs of people”; people need both prosperity, and places to live and work. And while the National Trust may “believe that the town and country planning system, as a whole, has served the country well”, this flies in the face of all the evidence.

Sadly, the government has shown a remarkable propensity to U-turn. On issues including forestry privatisation, dedicated funding for school sports, the health and social care bill and increasing the sentence discount for guilty pleas, it has almost appeared as though Messers Cameron and Clegg have been turning using the hand-break.

In fact, they should go further. While the Draft National Planning Policy Framework is mercifully brief, it fails to address the real problems resulting from our socialist planning system: the impossibility that planners can gather and process the necessary information, which is dispersed among the population and entirely subjective; the skewed incentives that encourage planners to empire-build and elected representatives to serve existing and localised interests rather than future and more diffuse ones; and the fact that there is no mechanism for compensating those negatively affected by development, which means that NIMBYism is not only commonplace but is entirely rational.

Rather than revising the National Planning Policy Framework, the Government needs to revoke the Town and Country Planning Acts, denationalise development rights and create a system whereby individuals are able to trade the bundles of property rights that they hold, including both rights to develop and rights to enjoy amenity. This would encourage the efficient use of land, compensate those impacted by negative externalities, and enable society to properly determine which sites should be protected and which should be developed.

It would be a radical reform, but if this government really wants to reduce regulatory burdens, stimulate business, build more houses and improve the lot of the poorest in our society, it may very well be the most effective reform it could make. And in these straightened times, it would cost virtually nothing.