The Empire Strikes Back?

*Cue trumpet fanfare and bold yellow text scrolling from bottom of screen to top*

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…


It is a period of civil war.  Rebel ministers, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Enemies of Enterprise.  During the battle, ministerial spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DRAG ANCHOR, a system of planning law, policy and guidance with enough power to destroy entire development proposals.  Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Captain Pickles races home aboard his starship, custodian of the Localism Bill that can save his people and restore freedom to the planning system….

I’m guessing here, but i’m fairly sure that he’s had a dream along those kind of lines.  Although i’m not 100% convinced he imagined himself as Princess Leia (my apologies to those of you who didn’t spend quite as much time as I did focussing on 1970s sci-fi films; my further apologies to those who did and are now imagining Eric Pickles as a Peter-Griffin/Han Solo lookalike).

Bizarre as a Star Wars context is for describing the progression of the Localism Bill, it’s not half as bizarre to my mind as the recent spate of speeches and Ministerial statements/pronouncements on the planning system and what is to be done with it.

To my mind things hadn’t been going swimmingly for the Government by the time Captain Pickles tried to woo the CBI on 22nd March 2011 where he came out with the frankly astonishing assertion that localism was about ‘putting power, responsibility and accountability back in the hands of people who knew what they were doing’

It might just have been me, but has ‘power’ (whatever that might be in a planning context) been in the hands of people who DON’T know what they’re doing for the past few years?  Who are these new people who miraculously know more about good planning?  Where have they been hiding for all these many years?

As Captain Pickles put it – they are those who understand their area, who know its strengths and who care about its future.  Quite.  Because we’ve all spent the past few years being involved in planning decisions where we have no idea about the area with no clue about its strengths and not giving a monkey’s about what happens after we’ve packed our bags and moved on to the next planning decision.  Wait, what?

And the aim?  To achieve a planning system that is ‘less Shakespearian tragedy, more Gettysburg address’ that you ‘don’t need an army of experts to navigate’.

So let me get this straight – we should abolish lots of policy and guidance on what basis?  Experts don’t know what they’re talking about?  That the gathering of expert knowledge and guidance in a cohesive statement of policy to seek to ensure national planning certainty where appropriate is wrong in principle?  That you don’t need specialist training/qualifications or experience to understand issues like design, architecture, landscape character, transport, economic growth patterns, social and housing trends?  I could go on but life’s too short.

And i’m not convinced that Pickles really meant to reduce the planning system in the same proportion as the difference between a Shakespearian tragedy (lasting several hours) and the Gettysburg Address.  Lincoln’s most famous speech lasted for approximately two minutes and consisted of no more than three paragraphs.  Applying that to the planning system, we’re jettisoning a lot more than the RSS and brownfield targets…

Imagine a planning system where the policy and guidance frameworks are so bereft of content that it really is just Pickles’ vision of ‘local planning for local people’.  Nature abhors a vacuum and it seems to me that such a scenario would be no exception.  The absence of policy or guidance would give experts so much more ‘elbow room’ to interpret and apply what little policy there is as to increase the involvement of experts.

And of course as well as expert planning advisors, in a simplified system why would no-one have recourse to expert advocates to present their case, or to take matters to the courts when they are aggrieved?

I haven’t even reached the Budget yet, where we learned that no government has yet tried to do anything about the planning system (?!), that brownfield targets are going, that Enterprise Zones are coming back (presumably as advance bases from which to launch suprise attacks against the Enemies of Enterprise) and that notwithstanding what local people might have used their new-found powers through localism to decide, central government dictates that economic development and growth takes pride of place.

So localism – is it still on track?

Captain Pickles should be mindful of another Star Wars moment – when the Y-wing fighters descend into the trench of the Death Star to commence their (ultimately unsuccessful) bombing run…

Gold Five “It’s no good, I can’t manoeuvre!”

Gold Leader “Stay on target

Gold Five “We’re too close!

Gold Leader “Stay on target!”

[they both then get picked off by Darth Vader and his tie-fighter wingmen].

Captain Pickles probably wants to watch out.  His cabinet and ministerial colleagues might be flying so close to his Localism Bill that they’ll either crash into the trench wall or get taken out by the Enemies of Enterprise and their wingmen…


PS Alright, that isn’t Gold Leader or Gold Five, it’s Red Six.  But it works better if you pretend…

About Scott Stemp
Planning, regulatory and environment barrister

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