What better way than to start with an inspirational quote from a great leader…
“There cannot be a crisis next week, my schedule is already full”
Henry Kissinger, 1969
And now we have it, the full unabridged version of the marriage contract between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. Like every marriage, there is a need for compromise on certain areas but both sides also know that, if you compromise too much too early you risk weakening your position and before you know it you’ve lost your own identity and morphed into the other person. MP s on both sides will be sharpening their pencils to underline where they feel that their party has won or lost.
A new government obviously also needs a new strap line, something which sums up the vision and aspiration of the country, so now we have ‘A free, fair and responsible society’… Responsible is perhaps the key word in this as the focus on the coalition government is not simply about transferring powers but more fundamentally about transferring responsibility (so if it all goes wrong we know that we have only ourselves to blame…). The foreword describes ‘a determination to oversee a radical redistribution of power away from Westminster & Whitehall to councils, communities and homes across the nation’, something we have heard much about over the past three weeks, but what does this actually mean?
Well, are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…
As expected, banking reform is at the centre of the manifesto with an emphasis on banks serving businesses and not the other way around. In particular, the government is seeking to push the SME agenda and boost lending to this sector. The extent to which this will deliver results will still, however, depend on the attitude of the banks and the response to the legislation which is brought in.
The coalition agreement rules out joining the single currency for the duration of the agreement – hardly a surprise really, the Greeks have been the single biggest asset to the anti-euro campaign since it began…
In terms of regulation, there is a apparently a competition going on within government departments to see who can cut the most red tape and regulations - don’t we all wish our day jobs were quite that exciting… I’m not sure if there is a prize for the winner of this competition, presumably they will all be hoping to endear themselves to George Osborne in advance of the Budget and/or next Comprehensive Spending Review. There is to be an official ‘one in, one out rule’ no new regulation is to be brought in without other regulation being cut by a greater amount.
The NHS is covered in some detail with pledges reiterated to give the best case, reduce waiting times and cutting costs. The government has been careful to emphasise that costs will be cut from backroom positions and not from front-line services.
As expected, political reform is central with a Referendum to be brought forward on electoral reform, a review of the House of Lords and reform of the House of Commons. David Cameron has caused controversy by seeking to have ministerial involvement in the backbench 1922 committee, traditionally a bastion of backbench mutterings from within the Conservative rank and file. This is likely to be opposed widely within the Conservative Party and seen as a heavy-handed way of trying to ensure order within the party.
Education, schools, social care, pensions, taxation – all are covered with a brushstroke approach so, in reality, we’re aren’t much clearer on any detail than we were two weeks ago. However, this sets the tone for the Queen’s speech next week and the Budget on 22nd of June when the real clear indication of priorities and the depths of spending cuts will be unveiled.
Planning and development
There are a whole raft of measures identified as part of the forthcoming changes to the planning system, key items of note are set out below with those either new or different to those set out in previous documentation in italics:
- The government has confirmed that it will enable councils to take competition issues into account when drawing up local plans to shape the direction and type of new retail development – essentially this ratifies the position which the previous government was looking to establish.
- RDAs will be abolished and replaced, where locally supported, by Local Enterprise Partnerships which will be joint local authority/business bodies
- RSSs will be ‘rapidly abolished’ – although it is unclear at this stage exactly what that means, what the process will be and whether or not there will be any transitional arrangements put in place.
- The government has confirmed that the planning system will be radically reformed on the principles set out in ‘Open Source Planning’
- The IPC will be abolished and replaced with a democratically accountable system with a fast-track process this may well be the merging of the IPC with PINS. However, there remain questions over how fast-track the process can be if the NPSs are subject to lengthy scrutiny and amendment processes.
- A single national planning framework will be published
- The government will crate a new designation similar to SSSIs to protect green areas of importance to local communities
- GOL will be abolished – it is likely that this will effectively be merged into the GLA. The government will consider the case for abolishing the other Government Offices.
- The government will promote ‘Home on the Farm’ schemes to encourage farmers to convert existing buildings into affordable housing
- Community trusts will be established to enable local people to provide homes for the local community
- Council Tax in England will be frozen for at least one year
- Directly elected mayors will be created in the 12 largest English cities
- Councils to be given a general power of competence – this means that they will not be restricted by the 1972 Act which governs what they are able to do, therefore they will be able to act in accordance with their own aspirations as they deem appropriate unless specifically prevented. This creates a permissive environment as opposed to restrictive – although this is unlikely to apply to finance which will be dealt with separately by the Government.
- The restructuring of councils in Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon will be halted
- The government will introduce new powers to help communities save facilities and services threatened with closure and give communities the right to bid to take over local state-run services
- Incentives for local authorities to deliver sustainable development including for new homes and businesses.
- Review into the effectiveness of the rising of the stamp-duty threshold for first-time buyers – this is a diluted version of the Conservative commitment to raise the threshold to £250,000 as a permanent move and suggests that they may be seeking to revise this
- HIPs are to be scrapped
- HS2 and Crossrail to be supported
- The government will encourage community-owned renewable energy schemes with communities able to keep any additional business rates they generate
There is little in the coalition agreement relating to planning and development which will come as any surprise – although the creation of another conservation status category may cause consternation to some developers who have either already been affected by the village green designation policy or are currently seeking to develop in areas where there is local opposition (i.e.. the majority of medium-large scale development). Under these circumstances, this could have a major impact, particularly if coupled with the decentralisation agenda which is clearly a top priority.
To an extent, the decentralisation and devolution agenda has the ability to shift some financial obligations from the government balance sheet and can go some way to contributing to the plans to cut the deficit. Furthermore, by vesting greater freedoms in local bodies there is an intention for a trade-off with less reliance on central government funding and services. It remains to be seen whether this virtuous circle can be achieved. Certainly in terms of planning and the delivery of the housing agenda it seems tenuous.
The confirmation that the principles of Open Source Planning will be used as the basis for reform effectively encompasses everything that had previously been proposed by the Conservatives without, at this stage, being specific on any one aspect. For example, third party rights of appeal… It was tacitly acknowledged pre-election that there were many aspects within the green paper which were still up for negotiation and debate therefore we can expect to see more detail on this over coming months in the form of consultations and/or green papers. The Government has indicated it is keen to resurrect discussions with the industry, however, they will be looking for a constructive and positive approach.
The commitment to freeze council tax for a year may cause some concern within local authorities who are already in fear of having their grant funding slashed therefore council tax being the main means of rising revenue would have been a default position. However, the government will be aware of this and will not want a council tax crisis to hit within the next 12 months or just ahead of the next local elections in May 2011. Furthermore, one potential side effect of this may be that this will further push local authorities into looking to accept development as a means of raising revenue (on the assumption that the new system of financial incentives is introduced almost immediately).
The big questions remain over timescales and the detail of the proposals, at this stage we are no clearer on what will actually take place and when.
Written by Stephen Byfield