Power should be much closer to people – they know how to achieve their goals; they need power to be put in their hands.
Local government and planning rules need to be simplified, made easier to navigate for individuals and businesses, and made much more responsive to local needs. Local government needs to be more agile to adapt to the changing needs of the economy.
A) Remove one tier from local government, and rank local authorities according to key metrics – if a local authority consistently fails, MHCLG may put the local authority into special measures, which may result eventually in a change in administrative leadership.
We should be proud of our record on local government. We have done a huge amount to return power to people through metropolitan mayors, and unitary councils have been established in some counties across England. However, there are still too many local authorities, who are neither large enough for effective delivery on the people’s priorities, nor small enough to empower local people and local communities properly.
In addition, the performance of local authorities in several areas – notably planning, implementing national regulations in a common sense way, proactively helping businesses seeking to relocate or even on recycling and refuse – is extremely patchy. Many members of the Unlock Britain Commission expressed embarrassment at the experience of dealing with local government in Britain for businesses in comparison with other countries.
How would it work?
We should remove a tier of local government across the country, restructure district and county councils into moderately sized unitary councils in the counties, and radically reduce the numbers of councillors in metropolitan areas which now have mayors as well as borough councils. This will greatly reduce costs, improve efficiency, strengthen parish and town councils in the counties, and improve oversight of mayors in metropolitan areas – government would be closer to the people and more responsive. It would also ensure that planning and business rates responsibilities are passed to the new unitary authority.
Putting planning and business rates responsibilities in the hands of unitary authorities has several advantages. The relevant departments within the unitary authorities will be larger, and better resourced than with many district councils today. It means that planning departments will have greater expertise, with improved capacity to deal with complex planning issues – which currently often overwhelm small planning departments in small authorities. It means that dealing with business rates can also be done more effectively, with greater expertise and understanding of the wider business context and environment.
Overall, unitary authorities will be able to enjoy economies of scale in their administration, which cannot be enjoyed when there are a larger number of small district councils. This is good for people and good for business.
We should create league tables for all local authorities on an agreed set of metrics, to be published quarterly. These metrics should cover performance indicators such as: average response times to correspondence/FOIs; user satisfaction with responses; average pothole repair time; percentage of planning applications turned down; average planning permission response time; number of new houses built/how many new houses needed (according to ONS). If any local authority finds itself in the bottom 10% in the league table for two subsequent quarters (or four times within two years), MHCLG may put the local authority into special measures, which may eventually result in a change in administrative leadership.
B) Use a streamlined planning process for a much greater range, and size, of infrastructure. This will make the majority of infrastructure built in the UK much faster, cheaper and easier to build. This will help the “levelling up” agenda be delivered quickly.
Planning was the most oft-cited problem for the British economy by members of the Unlock Britain Commission. A convoluted, expensive and uncertain planning system is a real hindrance to spreading and growing the economic opportunity that our people really need. Without improving the planning system for infrastructure, it will be difficult to deliver on the “levelling up” agenda. We need to make infrastructure much faster, and consequently often cheaper, to build.
Delivery of infrastructure is waylaid by costly delays, principal reasons for which are the following:
First, there is often a low level of expertise found in many local planning authorities (so they take a long time to approve/reject proposals). They are too small and under-resourced for complex work. Secondly, the small size of many local authorities means that the sponsor of any infrastructure (or large housing) project sometimes must get approval from several local authorities in order to deliver on their project. Thirdly, even when a project is initially approved by a local authority (often with a long delay), the decision is easily challenged in the courts – which increases the delays and cost yet further.
On the first, my previous proposals to simplify local government and to create local authority league tables should help streamline and improve the effectiveness of local authorities. However, here I want to focus on how to deal with the problem of getting infrastructure approved quickly without unnecessary delay.
The first thing to identify is what type of infrastructure one is talking about. The most economically critical infrastructure is not just the nationally significant infrastructure like Crossrail and HS2. Large housing developments, local infrastructure like road interchanges, railway stations, motorway extensions or new dual carriageways, and waste processing projects can be of critical importance to the nation’s economy when taken as a whole; and they can be extremely important to particular regions of the country if we are serious about the “levelling up” agenda. The Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013 introduced an extension of the regime from the Planning Act 2008 to include certain business and commercial projects. This was to enable developers of certain projects to opt-in to the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) planning regime at the developer’s discretion, where the projects are judged as being of national significance. A Development Consent Order (DCO) automatically removes the need to obtain several separate consents, including planning permission and is designed to be a much quicker process than applying for these separately. Decisions on DCOs must be made in accordance with National Policy Statements (NPS) in relation to areas of infrastructure development (i.e. Airports, or Roads).
There are two key actions we must take if we want much more infrastructure to be delivered much faster. First, we should remove the proviso that stipulates that projects must be of “national significance” if developers want to use this streamlining mechanism; we should make it the norm rather than the exception for all infrastructure development of certain types (dual carriageways, railways of any size, waste processing projects, and housing developments over 1,000 homes). One way of achieving that is to change the Planning Act so as to require all developments of infrastructure to use the DCO process unless they had a particular reason not to (such criteria would have to be developed carefully).
However, to make that a meaningful change, the DCO process must be made suitable for infrastructure development that is not deemed a NSIP. It is also worth mentioning that a major advantage of the DCO process is direct compulsory acquisition powers, rather than a sponsor having to rely on a local authority (with its own agenda) to purchase the land for it.
Here are the simple legislative steps we need to take to achieve this, and it can all be done by changes to the Planning Act:
A. Remove the need for DCOs to be made in accordance with an NPS – this won’t work for projects that are not of national significance, and some NPS do not exist, or are out of date anyway;
B. Shorten the time period required for public examination to four months (rather than six months as currently) because we would be dealing with smaller projects;
C. Reduce the time for the planning inspector and the Secretary of State (separately) to make their decisions under this process from three months to two months;
D. Limit the ability for the Secretaries of State to extend the time period they have for final decision–making (currently three months, hopefully changing to two months as per the above) to only being for special circumstances, such as national security or a national emergency.
When considering the changes (A) to (D) above, these mirror the provisions within the Planning Act that already exist for “material amendment” to DCOs – so there is an existing legislative precedent for this accelerated procedure.
Overall, this will mean that infrastructure projects, or housing developments of more than 1,000 homes, can be delivered with a high degree of certainty of success, within 12 months of the plan being submitted.
The second point to note is about judicial review. Judicial review is much more successful in planning when the DCO process is not used. There have been a number of judicial reviews which have resulted in considerable delay to development projects, including infrastructure, housing, retail and residential developments. For example:
- The expansion of Bristol airport, which was delayed by around 36 weeks;
- A £38m retail development in East London, due to create 500 jobs, which was delayed by 15 months at considerable cost to the developer and local economy;
- A development of 360 dwellings in Carmarthenshire which was delayed by around 18 months by an unsuccessful judicial review; and
- A supermarket development in Skelton which was challenged by a rival store, delaying the development by around 6 months. The judicial review was found to be totally without merit.
There have been relatively few High Court challenges in respect of DCOs. The PINS Infrastructure website states that there have been over 70 decided NSIP applications, only 16 reported decisions on challenges, and only 10 related to the grant or refusal of a DCO. Only one of the challenges was successful overall.
Therefore, it is my contention that the simplest way to speed up much more infrastructure and large housing development is to use the existing DCO process for much more infrastructure – if developers wish. This will speed up infrastructure development hugely, and will increase certainty for developers, and retain consultation for local residents.
C) How to help restructure our high streets.
“We have seen ten years of digital disruption in ten weeks”.
These are the words of Nick Beighton, CEO of ASOS, in one of the discussions with the Unlock Britain Commission. Our high streets will bear the brunt of much of the COVID-19 recession – as many businesses, restaurants, and pubs will never come back. Restructuring the High Street is critical for the future of the British economy and for levelling up.
How would it work?
The Future High Streets Fund is a brilliant example of the government allowing local authorities to develop a plan to rejuvenate their town centre, and get government funding to help make these plans a reality. However, it relies upon local authorities having enough local understanding, vision and funding to develop a plan that really can reposition their town centre. Many do not have that in place.
What we should do is put together a Future Town Centre council of specialist advisers from across the country. Their role will be to operate in the manner of top management consultants and produce a future plan for town centres that wished them to do so. Once the plan is produced, and agreed with the local authority, a development corporation should be set up in order to deliver the plans in the most efficient way, with full participation with the local business community, charities and citizens. Using the Future Town Centre council, we should promote much more residential development in town centres, which will stimulate a rebirth of town centres, increase footfall for the retail sector, and provide more affordable homes for young people.
One important aspect to restructuring the use of land in the High Street is to improve the ability to recycle and reshape commercial property. One way of doing this is to mandate complete transparency of rents paid in the commercial property sector throughout the UK. Although this would be controversial, and many landlords would hate it, it would lead to a radical recalibration of commercial rents, and this would help local authorities, tenants and owners make better decisions about how to use their land and property.
Business rates is a much hated tax; but a clear alternative to it does not yet exist so it is unlikely to disappear any time soon. However, the way business rates are implemented is incredibly cumbersome. At revaluation, the Valuation Office Agency adjusts the rateable value of business properties to reflect changes in the property market. Revaluations are typically done every five years. By ensuring complete transparency on market rents, and using these to play a key part in the revaluation of business rates, it would be possible to align business rates much more closely with rental values (not necessarily the same as what a property might be worth to buy) and make them much more sensitive to market fluctuations on a yearly basis.
The proposal known as “street votes” allows local people, on single stretches of street, to vote on permission to build upwards to a maximum of five storeys and take up more of their plots, such as by adopting a terrace format. It was recommended by the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. Much of the British urban environment is made up of low–density suburban style housing. Putting power directly in the hands of residents, if residents want to, we could allow streets to be built up with higher densities. This could create several million new homes in a city like London, and it would do so with the express positive consent of local residents rather than against their intense resistance.
Permission would be granted only after a successful supermajority vote. Development would be subject to rigorous design codes, also to be voted on by residents, and required to be “A rated” for energy efficiency. To preserve our heritage, these permissions should be unavailable in conservation areas and for listed buildings. Since residents would often enjoy an enormous increase in land values subsequent to such a vote, they would have a powerful incentive to support development.