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Its all about the jobs…

December 9th, 2011

It is not often that I find myself congratulating the Welsh Government. Today, however, I take off my woolly hat to them. They have released proposals to change planning policy to be more friendly towards new development and inward investment.

The credit crunch and recession have been with us for a number of years and it is surprising that it has taken so long, but I will not dwell on that. It is the content that counts.

In that respect, the policy is in many ways suspiciously similar to that which has been around in England for a number of years. The definition of economic land uses have been broadened to include other non traditional employment categories such as retail, leisure and public services. It also recognises that land supply needs to be considered for these economic uses and not just sheds and offices.

The general tenor is that planning authorities have a balancing act to achieve, supporting economic and employment growth alongside social and environmental sustainability.

It makes clear that planning authorities must adopt a positive and constructive approach to applications for economic development.

For some authorities, that is old news. There are a number of good examples in Wales where planning departments have been working alongside economic development colleagues to provide this kind of approach. It is however a wake up call to those other planning authorities and national park authorities that have traditionally seen development as a bad thing to be resisted at all cost.

In that regard it makes abundantly clear that the economic benefits of a proposal ought to be given equal weight to social and environmental issues and can in fact in some cases outweigh such considerations.

Perhaps the most significant part of the emerging guidance is that gives specific instruction to local planning authorities to look favourably on applications for economic land uses that are not in accordance with the development plan if the economic benefits of the development are demonstrated to outweigh any adverse impacts.

These changes are a real, and in my view welcome, poke in the eye for the eco-mentalist lobby (as Clarkson would describe it) that seems in recent years to have gained free reign over the planning system and in my experience frightened new investment and jobs out of the Principality.

It is also a clear message to those planning authorities who consider that their contribution to economic development starts and ends with the allocation and re-allocation of tracts of unattractive land for industrial sheds that they must change their ways.

The most important signal that the policy sends is to people outside of Wales. It shows investors and developers from across the border that they should not be put off by Wales’s obsessions with sustainability standards and carrier bags. It shouts loud and clear that Wales is once again open for business.

Whether the policy succeeds or not is of course in the hands of local authorities. While some will grasp the nettle, I am sure there will be some senior officers and councillors who will pretend that nothing has changed.

In those cases the Welsh Government needs to make it absolutely clear that they will not hesitate to intervene where old style planning stands in the way of new jobs.