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Dear Prime Minister: A planning & environmental wish list from Irwin Mitchell

Following Liz Truss’s victory last week, Nicola Gooch and Claire Petricca-Riding of Irwin Mitchell have put the below together as to what they think she needs to do in terms of planning and housing.

After a summer of hustings, debates, and garden party faux pas, a new Prime Minister finally entered Number 10. 

It is probably safe to say that our new leader, Liz Truss has a lot on her plate, so we thought it might be helpful to set out a few thoughts on how her new government might want to approach its planning & housing


So, more in hope than expectation, please find below our miniature manifesto:

Close the Revolving Doors at DLUHC (for a while...)

England is in the middle of an acute housing shortage. We are trying to fix it with a planning system that is close to breaking point. The reasons for this are myriad, complex and interconnected. There is no silver bullet. No single solution. Tackling the crisis will take a concerted effort, over a considerable period of time, by people who truly understand the sector.

The constant churn of senior ministers at DLUHC has not helped. In fact, it just adds to the sense of uncertainty and instability which is leading many local planning authorities to delay or defer work on their local plans.

The department has had seven secretary of states and eleven housing ministers in the past ten years. It is rare for an appointee to remain in place for more than eighteen months.  This level of turnover makes it almost impossible for the politicians in charge of resolving our housing crisis to truly understand it. A situation which does not help the consistency or quality of decision making.

If the new Prime Minister is serious about tackling the housing crisis, we need a significant period of stability at DLUHC .Let’s hope Simon Clarke is up to the job and stays the course.

Take Local Government and Civic Infrastructure Seriously

If you were to identify a 'golden thread' running through the Levelling-Up Agenda, it would be local government. 

Planning, social care, high street regeneration projects, waste collection, highway improvements and even the development and location of new schools are all the responsibility of local government. 

To have a shot at reducing regional inequalities, we need vibrant and effective local government. At the moment it is barely functioning. 

The problems in the planning system are plain for all to see. Years of budget cuts and under-investment has resulted in severe staff shortages almost across the board. Morale is also at rock bottom, with comparatively low public sector pay making it extremely difficult to attract and retain new officers. This urgently needs to be addressed.

Additional resourcing, and revitalised training and support systems, are desperately needed if we are to reduce delays in the planning system - both when it comes to policy formation and determining individual planning applications.

A mechanism for effective strategic planning is also essential if we are to tackle cross-border issues: such as water neutrality concerns, the delivery of strategic infrastructure projects or maybe, you know, attempting to actually meet our housing needs.

The issues of under resourcing, however, extend far beyond the planning system. Every single part of local government is feeling the pinch. As inflation erodes councils' spending power still further, more and more councils are likely to end up in trouble: CroydonSlough and Thurrock may just the first in a depressingly long list of authorities in need of financial assistance from central government.

And there are other civic institutions that are needed for a functioning society - such as the courts.

Whilst planning litigation is generally thought of as a civil matter - made up of judicial review challenges, statutory reviews and other public law claims in the administrative court; most planning enforcement cases ultimately end up in the criminal courts. The criminal justice system is creaking at the seams, which is having a knock-on effect on enforcement cases.

There is very little point in strengthening planning enforcement powers (which the LURB arguably does) if Councils are prevented from effectively prosecuting breaches because of a lack of capacity in the Court system. It is also grossly unfair on defendants for the stress and potential consequences of a criminal prosecution to be kept hanging over their heads for years on end, with little hope of resolution.

Preventing legal aid barristers from striking is not going to fix the problem. The entire justice system requires investment, and quickly. 

Stop Demonising Developers and Deifying the Green Belt

You cannot solve our housing crisis without building houses. That requires two things: 

  1. Land, and 
  2. A development industry. 

Recent anti-development, and particularly anti-house builder, rhetoric has been far from helpful. We have not had a significant government-led house building programme for a number of years and as a result, we are almost entirely dependent on private sector house builders to deliver new stocks of both market and affordable housing. The government is going to need their help and cooperation if we to increase our overall levels of housing delivery without a major state-backed development programme.

We also need to have an honest grown-up conversation about the green belt. The green belt is an urban containment policy, designed to prevent urban sprawl. It is not a comment on the ecological or agricultural value of the land in question. We have other planning designations for that. 

Green belt does not mean green field or even open countryside. It just means that the land is located near a major city or urban conurbation. In and of itself, that is not a good reason for it to be treated as sacrosanct.

Take a Breath, Engage with Stakeholders and Think Things Through 

And finally... please be aware that the planning system, and indeed our environment, is intricate and highly complex. There is a genuine risk that poorly thought through government policy could make things worse... rather than better... So please, take a breath, genuinely engage with those who work in the sector and keep a very close eye out for those pesky unintended consequences...


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