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  • Lawrence Bailey

A solution looking for a problem



One thing you have to admit about Boris Johnson’s government is that seldom a day goes by without an eye-catching pitched initiative to the media.

Cynics might suggest the intention is to distract from inept handling of COVID-19 and how Brexit is reportedly going backwards. I couldn’t possibly comment.

Anyhow, the wheeze rolled out last weekend was a proposed introduction of fast-track planning permissions in England to speed up regeneration.

In essence, revised rules would enable new homes, schools and surgeries to be built automatically, using something called "permission in principle".

The proposal got a cool reception from the Local Government Association, which represents UK local authorities. A spokesman claimed more than a million homes, already given planning permission in the last decade, have yet to be built.

I’ve no idea if that statement is accurate but I do know that developers would argue that the primary cause of delay remains nit-picking bureaucracy, even after consent is granted.

Senior politicians may not want to hear this, but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence out there about officials demanding unnecessary and expensive updates to approved plans.

I’m told one developer had a layout rejected because the pavements were shown in the wrong colour. In another case, planners insisted on being provided with detailed architectural drawings of garden sheds.

It’s accepted that stuff like backlogs, inaccurate drainage records or just missing paperwork all conspire to make municipal life challenging. The problem though is that it further adds to costly delays for construction firms and would-be buyers.

That’s without the so-called Section 106 legal ‘agreements’ attached to planning permission - and which oblige developers to cough up for community facilities in what sometimes feels like a cash-for-consent scam.

Welsh government has yet to reveal if they’ll be adopting an ‘automatic’ approach to planning. I doubt it, if only because ministers are keenly aware how the process is already viewed with suspicion by many communities.

Wales has the task of delivering a promised 20,000 affordable homes by 2021 while incorporating its own complex sustainability ambitions into the package. All the signs are that this won’t happen if there is a failure to recognise how the first-time buyer market needs support..

Introducing new sweeping planning powers may sound catchy but it’s pretty much a solution looking for a problem. A focus on smarter working would pay much better dividends.

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Sector shows the way through collaboration

Anyone following business trends will have already spotted an emerging pattern of fusions and management buyouts as firms look to regroup. It’s understandable that the public sector is also exploring ways to safeguard resources that will help keep things afloat during this crisis.

Restrictions on travel and social distancing have been keenly felt in the higher education sector. Although quick to modify their operating models, it was obvious that longer-term actions would be needed.

Hence we read that the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD) and the University of South Wales have announced a ‘strategic alliance’.

I must say this combining of interests makes a refreshing change from the attitude of some academic institutions who appear happy to watch each other go to the wall.

In many ways, it also confirms that leaders are prepared to practice what they’ve been preaching for some time; namely that innovation and collaboration are the keys to unlocking economic growth.

As UWTSD vice-chancellor Prof Medwin Hughes puts it, “we will secure greater synergy in our skills delivery and establish far stronger strategic partnerships with government and employers.”

I’m glad to hear it.

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