Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Welcome to the World of Impact Assessments

I have been reading the government’s White Paper on Planning, published at the beginning of the week. Much of the interest in this document has focused, rightly, on the government’s intention to sub out difficult infrastructural works (i.e. new nukes, new runways) to an independent commission. Environmentalists have been jumping up and down saying this is going to make big planning decisions unaccountable, but I am not sure it will make that much difference because the government always gets its way in any event. What they are hoping to do is to make the process a little quicker.

I am more interested in the other end of the spectrum, how the government intends to streamline the processing of domestic planning applications. It looks like it needs some attention because the number of applications has mushroomed in recent years, due in no small part to the penal rates of stamp duty being charged for moving house, which causes everyone to start extending instead.

However the White Paper sandwich has an awful lot of bread and very little meat and, once you’ve dusted off the pages and pages of good intentions, what you are left with in terms of concrete proposals is not much more than guesswork.

Chapter 9 is where it gets written up and it all hinges on the future of Permitted Development Rights. This is a system that has existed since planning controls on domestic development were first introduced in 1948 and it allows certain minor works to be carried out without the need for planning permission. Each house comes with its own PD Rights but once these have been used up, any additional development requires planning permission.

The intention expressed in the White Paper is to replace the PD Rights system as it now exists with Impact Assessments. No or low impact development – and by impact we are talking principally about the effect on the neighbours — will be permitted, whilst high impact developments will require planning permission.

Reads well on the page but the problem that immediately sticks out about this proposal is that impact is a highly subjective term. Who is going to decide the difference between low and high impact? Hmm, it’s a difficult one.

But if you think about it for a couple of minutes and look at Labour’s past record on housing matters (think Home Information Packs here, not to mention its various competent person schemes aimed at streamlining the building regs), you can sort of figure out where this is all heading. Answer: Impact Assessors.

So I can see the future going something like this. If you want to make changes to your home you will have to first contact an Impact Assessor. They will determine whether you need to apply for planning permission. They will also levy from you an Impact Fee for environmental improvements to your neighbourhood — on the basis that a new bedroom is another school place or a hospital bed. You will also be required to carry out additional eco-improvements to your home. By paying the fee and the assessor, you buy yourself a right to develop. If you go ahead illegally, you risk fines (having been snitched up by nosey neighbours) and difficulties selling your home when the time comes.

From the government’s point of view this will streamline the planning process and vastly reduce the number of applications clogging up the system. Instead of having to hire expensive graduates to staff planning departments, school leavers will be able to train as Impact Assessors on a three-day intensive, get their competency badge and off they go, just like we are seeing with Domestic Energy Assessors at the moment. The assessments will be done by feeding measurements and checkbox answers into a laptop, which ordinary mortals won’t have a hope of understanding. And will therefore be unchallengable.

It all sounds horribly 1984 but the strange thing is it sort of makes sense and I am not sure it’s actually any worse than what happens already. In fact, it makes rather more sense than the current proposal to have Energy Performance Certificates every time a house is sold, as an impact assessment would be made prior to building work, which is the best time to make changes to the house. It could be a transformational tool for upgrading the existing housing stock, but it’s more likely to be construed as yet another stealth tax — which it is — and will therefore be hugely unpopular.

Maybe the government will be able to use its new independent planning commission to force this new measure through!

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