Is planning going back to the future?

Posted by Morgan on 3rd Oct 2012

The overriding narrative in both planning legislation and public debate is about protecting town centre and only allowing sustainable development. Indeed, with much fan fair the government appointed Mary Portas to champion and advise on protecting our town centres.

Yet, there is an increasing feeling that this is all government spin. They have talked to talk but are not walking the walk!

In our News section you will have read that I went to a planning seminar last week. A learned and expert group of people who have spend their lives in planning felt that local councils are approving Out of Town shopping, both supermarket and non-food, in the knowledge that it is in contravention of planning policy. However, the priority is to encourage any new investment and job creation – regardless of whether it is sustainable in the medium term.

There was also a view that councils don’t have the finances to fight developers through planning appeals so it was easier to roll over that take a stand.

Now, I fully understand in these difficult times that investment and job creation is positive. However, the whole point of having a planning regime is to ensure that development projects are sustainable and in keeping within their communities. (I even have to get permission to trim the tree in my garden, which is a pain but in the communal good.)

Where planning policy is not being followed at a local level the Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, is meant to call in planning applications for review. The feeling is that Mr Pickles is not doing this; maybe he is cost cutting, pursuing a localism agenda or idle? Whatever the reason, his lack of activity in no way supports the town centre first rhetoric that the government purports to promote.

The Queen of Shops is worried "Part of me sometimes thinks: 'Is this a big PR thing by the government or is this truly believing in town centre first?' I really have to question this. I have written again to Cameron on this. I want to know what we are doing.”

There is now a real litmus test to see what the government is doing. Yesterday, a scheme known as Rushden Lakes was recommended for approval by the planning officers of East Northamptonshire. This is an out of town retail development of 130,000 sq ft located beyond Rushden on the A14. It will be huge by comparison to Rushden town centre and will take trade and investment from town centres including Wellingborough, Kettering, Corby, Northampton and Bedford.

It is contrary to all planning policy but given that all of these towns are outside of East Northamptonshire the council’s officers have found means to ignore the obvious impact. Approval by the Council members now seems a formality. When this happens their decision should almost certainly land in Mr Pickles’ in tray and he should in theory reject the proposal to protect town centres across the region. Only time will tell if this happens and how Mr Pickles will opine.

If Rushden Lakes is approved then it will be a clear sign to Ms Portas that she was on a PR driven wild goose chase. Equally, the rest of us should accept that investment and jobs come before fancy concepts like sustainability and strategic planning.

At least in the Industrial Revolution they didn’t bother with the pretence. My son is currently into Oliver Twist the musical; I keep telling him how tough life was in the old days. Maybe I should tell him that is what to expect in the future?

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