Inexpensive progress?

New research, Inexpensive Progress (PDF / 5MB), published today explores the complicated question of the economic impact of planning.

The question is an important one, as the Government’s entire programme of planning reform is based on the idea that planning is holding back the economy. This was the clear message of the Chancellor’s Plan for Growth, which first trumpeted the idea that a massive shake-up of the planning system was needed in order to get the economy moving again.

In fact, the new report makes it clear that things aren’t quite as simple as that. The report, which has been produced by independent economic consultants Vivid Economics on behalf of the National Trust, CPRE and RSPB, highlights the fact that we know remarkably little about what the impact of deregulating the planning system will be.

However, as the researchers show, deregulation is unlikely to guarantee the sort of growth that the Government is hoping for. To quote from the report:

“it is unlikely that the draft NPPF will have much effect on growth or employment in the short run.”

Of course, the report does not deny that planning imposes costs. It stands to reason that this is so – planning is an expensive business, and developers expect to have to shoulder some of the burdens. But while a number of studies have looked at the cost side of the equation, fewer have considered the benefits that planning brings. These include the improvements to quality of life that a well-planned environment can bring, the economic advantages of strategic planning for businesses, and the benefits that everyone reaps from wildlife and open spaces.

A true analysis of the economic impact of planning would address both the benefits and the costs – and this is what is lacking from the current National Planning Policy Framework impact assessment. The National Trust does not deny that reform is needed to speed up the process of planning decision making for individuals and businesses. But more assessment is needed of the likely effects of the draft NPPF, and more research is needed into the likely long-term implications. The  biggest mistake would be to rush to a fundamental change to the planning system– such as by imposing a ‘default yes’ in the absence of a local plan – without doing more to consider what the net effects will be.

It is also a mistake in our view to pin planning reform so closely to the Plan for Growth. Planning requires more than just an economic consideration – it serves to balance the economy, the environment, and our social needs. We would be far more comfortable with the debate if planning reform had not been made so central to the Chancellor’s plan for growth.

With the deadline for the NPPF approaching at the end of March, and the Budget falling on 21 March, we fear that Government will try once again to connect the two things. Could they even be tempted to publish the revised NPPF on Budget day itself, in order to defuse the inevitable headlines by burying it as a detail of the Budget announcement? Let’s hope not – planning deserves more than that.

Ben Cowell, Assistant Director of External Affairs, National Trust

Inexpensive Progress? is named after a John Betjeman poem – well worth a read.

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