Legal profession reserves judgement on Planning Bill

The proposed Planning Bill, which has its second reading in the House of Commons today (10 December), has met with a mixed response from the legal community.

The bill, which is seen as the first attempt at a major overhaul of the planning regime for several years, is seeking to establish an Independent Planning Commission (IPC), to be made up of lawyers and other professionals with relevant expertise.

The group would take over from government ministers as the primary decision-making body on projects deemed to be of national interest, with a mandate to create a more streamlined planning process.

According to Bircham Dyson Bell planning partner Robbie Owen, as the IPC would reduce the scope for individuals and communities to raise their concerns on planning issues, it would represent “a move away from the adversarial approach of public inquiries to an inquisitorial approach”.

However, Richard Harwood of 39 Essex Street, who is currently advising the front-bench opposition, believes that the presence of part-time members on the IPC could lead to conflicts of interest.

“Those dealing with, for example, a major airport expansion may have been involved in that recently [acting for the promoters],” said Harwood.

Owen agreed that this could pose problems. “The IPC is going to have to be very careful about who it appoints,” he said, adding that each commissioner will have to “disclose financial and other interests”.

Supporters argue that the new system is fundamental if energy and transport works are not to be halted on the basis of nimbyism.

“Having your say is part of being in a democracy, but there can’t be a popular vote on matters of national importance,” said Nabarro planning partner Philip Kratz. “Nobody’s overkeen on having electricity supply on their doorstep, even though many want to be able to switch the kettle on.”

Nevertheless, the replacement of what Friends of the Earth legal adviser Philip Michaels referred to as opponents’ “right to be heard” with the “right to be read” could lead to a spurt of judicial reviews in response.

The intention is that the IPC will comprise a chair, at least two deputies and some 30 members appointed by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government for terms of five to eight years.