Comment: Should planning laws be relaxed?

Illustration by Roland Gesthuizen under Creative Commons licence

Should planning laws be relaxed? Our comment editor, Sam Wood, says ‘yes’. But politics reporter Bob Cooper disagrees.

Bob Cooper writes:

The government intends to publish the final version of its new National Planning Policy Framework by the end of March and unless serious changes are made following last year’s consultation, anyone who cares strongly about their neighbourhood ought to be worried.

The draft version, published in July of last year, represents a vast reduction in the regulations surrounding planning and development in the UK, with a much greater emphasis on economic growth than on protecting our environment and the character of our villages, towns and cities.

The draft framework provoked criticism from various groups, including the National Trust, English Heritage and the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE).

Perhaps the clause that strikes most fear into the hearts of those concerned about the new framework is that “decision-takers at every level should assume that the default answer to development proposals is ‘yes.'”

Already we can see developers invoking this principle in their attempts to push through their planning schemes. In Jesmond right now, one of our great heritage assets, Jesmond Towers, is under threat from a proposed development by Shepherd Offshore.

Despite the framework’s draft status, Shepherd’s planners directly quote the ‘default answer’ clause in their planning statement.

Residents have been proactive in raising awareness and voicing their concerns to the council about the Jesmond Towers proposals, but there is certainly a chance the new pro-development framework will weigh against them.

Another controversial development has been proposed on Jesmond Road, this time to convert the former youth hostel into multiple-occupancy flats. This application is in its second incarnation, having been rejected by the council in November and now slightly revised by the developers.

Local residents and councillors have raised various concerns about the plans, including the loss of the youth hostel facility and the effects on noise and traffic in the area. But lo and behold, the developers are citing the ‘default answer’ clause in their planning application, just like Shepherd Offshore.

We can only hope the government has taken into account the concerns raised in the consultation and that local residents continue to be active in making their voices heard, whenever developments threaten the character and environmental sustainability of our neighbourhoods.

Sam Wood writes:

I would welcome looser planning laws in the UK. Let me just chuck a couple of facts into the mix to explain why.

The average age of a first time buyer in this country is now 37. In 2006 it was 33. If borrowing remains difficult then it’s only going to go up. And remember this is at a time when house prices are as low as they have been for years. There is a crisis brewing in home ownership and our planning laws are contributing to that.

Soaring house prices may be a thing of the past but that doesn’t mean it will always be that way, and it doesn’t mean the chronic shortage of housing has gone away.

This has an impact on the society as a whole. If people don’t have the security of house ownership they will be less willing to spend and it just provides less security in general for families.

A big part of the problem is the current glacial pace of the planning system. The current laws mean that places with strong communities (usually better off like Jesmond) can get together their objections and stop developments, while the communities with less cohesion have less of a voice. Is that fair?

The big debate at the moment is the La Sagesse school site. It is no doubt a fantastic building but is currently sitting empty and useless.

The only objections to the Shepherd Offshore plans seem to be it might make traffic a bit worse and destroy some green space. This would be offset by jobs created and housing provided.

As far as I’m aware the only other suggestion is for it to be used for filming Tracey Beaker, hardly likely to secure a positive future for the site.

Far better, surely, for it to contribute to the local economy and ensure the building is maintained into the future and remains a part of the Jesmond landscape.

What exactly is the problem with trying to promote economic growth at the moment? Maybe in better times we can think about other factors, but surely now our priority has to be to do everything we can to get the economy back on track.