We had a feisty fringe last night at the Liberal Democrat conference in Birmingham.  This was unsurprising as we were debating the planning reforms.  Planning has been front page news for weeks and it was a good opportunity to find out how the Liberal Democrats were feeling about the controversial proposals.

I shared a panel with three others including Andrew Stunnell, a Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government, Louise Bloom, an Eastleigh Borough Councillor, and Dr Tim Leunig, Chief Economist from Centre Forum. 

It was my job to make the case for the prosecution.  The planning reforms fundamentally skewed the decision-making process in favour of economic growth effectively trumping socio-environmental concerns.  The evidence is in both the National Planning Policy Framework (see paragraphs 14, 15 and 19) and the Localism Bill (see what was clause 124 but is now clause 130), currently being debated in the House of Lords.

I argued that the Government’s ambitions (which of course are shared by the Lib Dems) to “protect wildlife and... restore biodiversity” would be undermined by these reforms.  All the good bits in the NPPF (for which my colleague and man of the moment, Simon Marsh, deserves credit) counted for nothing when faced with local planning authorities who will now be obliged to approve all individual proposals “unless the adverse impacts of allowing development would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits”.
Generously, I thought, I offered the Minister a way to escape the current furore: include a definition of sustainable development (incorporating the ambition to live within environmental limits) on the face of the Localism Bill, remove clause 130 (which gives greater weight to local financial considerations) from that Bill, establish socio-environmental tests against which development applications can be assessed and remove from the NPPF the phrase which establishes that “the default answer to development proposals is yes”.

The Minister, despite arriving late (which is a bit of a ritual at party conferences), gave an assured performance yet gave little away (another ritual). 

He reinforced my view that some ministers are trying to do the right thing (perhaps I was slightly swayed when he brandished his RSPB member’s card at one point) but the draft NPPF has been captured by other bits of Whitehall which see planning as the obstacle to economic growth.  As I have previously blogged, the evidence to support this view is thin.

The evening ended with differences of opinion aired but little resolved.  So we had a warm glass of white wine, ate a slightly crusty canapé and then went our separate ways.  There will be a quite few more debates on planning during the conference season so it is best not to peak too soon...  

A colleague once said that the party conference season started in summer but ended in autumn.  I remain, as ever, confused by our weather, but one thing is certain - the planning storm looks set to continue for some time.