24 June 2015

'And they're off!' A new city devolution package, and forcing brownfield development, first out of the gates from the not so new look DCLG

When the Queen’s Speech was delivered on 27 May 2015 for the opening of the first majority Conservative government in 13 years, one of the things we were promised was the greater devolution of powers to local authorities to allow for the creation of a “northern powerhouse”. We certainly didn’t have to wait long.

Waiting in the wings was the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill 2015 which, just a day later, had its first reading in the House of Commons. The Bill makes provision for the election of mayors within combined authorities, who would take on a wide range of powers, including assuming statutory planning powers.

The idea of decentralising power and enabling local people to make decisions in their areas is something that the previous government was keen to pursue. At the end of 2014 a report entitled "The Implications of Devolution for England" was presented to Parliament and set out the government’s desire to “increase the powers of local institutions, enhance local accountability and transparency, reduce barriers that prevented people doing things for themselves and reduce bureaucratic and regulatory burdens” allowing communities to respond to different challenges and to meet local needs.

Leading the field in this regard is Greater Manchester who have already reached a separate agreement within their draft spatial framework. This will allow a city-wide elected metro mayor to be appointed who will oversee development in the ten local authorities which make up the Greater Manchester area.

The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill 2015 will see these powers made available to other combined authorities , without the need to prepare a separate statutory framework, as Greater Manchester have done.

Another of the coalition government’s promises, which appears to have not lost any traction in the present administration, is the promise to utilise brownfield sites for housing. Following hot on the heels of the Devolution Bill, the proposed Housing Bill will seek to introduce a statutory register for brownfield land, to help achieve the target of getting Local Development Orders (LDO) in place on 90% of suitable brownfield sites by 2020.

An LDO sets out at quite a high level what quantum and type of development is acceptable on a particular site, giving some certainty for potential developers. LDOs were used historically for mostly industrial sites, and large scale regeneration following the Second World War; it is yet to be seen whether LDOs can again be successfully utilised to address the nation’s housing crisis.

A number of pilot projects are now underway, with the support of DCLG funding. However, even if these are successful, concerns have already been raised as to the impact on resources of Councils to achieve the 90% figure put forward by the government. LDOs are Council generated orders; without the active and financial support of would be developers, the powers may simply flounder in the face of wider cuts coming down the track.

These two examples of the potential future of planning under a conservative government aren’t exactly surprising. Many have praised Greg Clark’s appointment as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government for the continuity it will provide. Clark played a pivotal role in the introduction of the Localism Act 2011 and the development of the National Planning Policy Framework during his time as Minister for Decentralisation. More recently his position at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills saw him responsible for regional growth and devolution.

It therefore seems highly likely that we will see the coalition government’s work in the sphere of planning carried forward and built upon by Clark over the next five years. 

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