For those of us hoping for a well-paid planning job next year, Chancellor George Osbourne’s ‘comprehensive spending review‘ doesn’t bode well.
The department for Communities and Local Government (CLG, (the body that funds my studies) is set to see its budget cut by a third over the next four years, including a 27 percent cut in funding to local governments. Housing and regeneration programmes have taken an even bigger hit, with cuts of over 50 percent. Capital spending will reduce by 74 per cent (sic)
With so many people set to loose their jobs (500,000 in the public sector, and knock on private sector jobs), and remain on housing waiting lists, we students and future job seekers have little to complain about – at least not yet.
Perhaps we will end up being the lucky ones. People working for local authorities or quangos like CABE (the government advisor on urban space whose funding has just been cut) will be feeling the carnage first hand, and I know from experience (having watched it happen at my previous employer The Associated Press) that it can be soul sapping even for those who suvive the cull.
We will also be spared the massive uncertainty about how the radical reforms to the planning structure will work (hopefully the government will have worked it out by then). Many of those coping with the changes at the moment say their suddeness (with little or no transition) and the lack of long term perspective is making it impossible to work. As humans we hate uncertainty, but the business plans of all sorts of companies are being binned as the assumptions on which they were based evaporate (how do you plan for future water demand if you don’t know where houses will be built?).
There were a few clues today that at least the government is thinking about this. Charities will be one of the groups around which local groups may gather as power trickles down to community level. To make sure they are still around when the Big Society initiatives are announced next year, £470 million was set aside for voluntary groups including a £100 million “transition” fund to help them adjust to the tough times ahead.
But many questions remain. Who will take responsibility for tough decisions? What happens when a vital new facility is needed but NIMBYs say no? How to link national needs with what is going on at the local and community level, and how do communities make sense of this?
In a letter to local authority leaders, CLG minister Eric Pickles confirmed that Regional Development Agencies (who prepared strategic economic plans for their region and also distribute European funding) are being replaced by local enterprise partnerships (staffed 50.50 by business and local authorities). The RDA, which some government ministers apparently fought to keep, are among the loosers in a bonfire of the quangos that saw 192 bodies culled. The LEPs may get some of their funding through Whitehall contracts, but it is still unclear how they will work. Whatever their makeup, the question is whether they will have the right skills and resources to do the job.
As for housing, the New Homes Bonus is supposed to gives incentives rather than grants to communities that build houses which the government hopes will encourage building. The planned Localism Bill (first reading due next month) according to Pickles, “will go even further in giving councils control over the issues which matter to local people, including providing councils with the general power of competence they have long called for.” But liberating councils from the requirement to build houses is said to be killing off 1,300 planned new homes a day
It seems that despite the crashing headline cuts, there is some wiggle room. Councils, Pickles said, “raise revenue from other sources” and “there is a clear expectation that councils will use this new autonomy to protect key frontline services.” But they shouldn’t raise council tax. Those that freeze council tax will get government funding equivalent to a 2.5 percent increase in council tax. And £1 billion will be snaffled from the NHS budget to “break down the barriers between health and social care.”
Pickles is, according to those who know him, relishing his role as public services slasher. And he’s not alone. According to the Financial Times, “Britain’s biggest fiscal squeeze since the second world war was greeted with cries of “more” from ecstatic government MPs as George Osborne, chancellor, set out plans for £81bn of spending cuts.”
While it’s true that Britain’s deficit at around 13 percent is the largest in Europe, it surprises me how many people (including some teaching economics at masters level) mix debt and deficit. Britain’s debt level at 56 percent is much lower than Italy’s (at around 100 percent), smaller than France’s (at 60 percent) and only marginally bigger than Germany’s (54 percent). Budget gaps in the U.S (65 percent) and Japan are larger than ours. Debt is more important than deficit, which covers only one year, as it is this which we pay interest on. But it wouldn’t help the government win support for rolling back the state if people thought we were in better shape than our competitors.
The mayor of London appears to have been a big winner from the changes, picking up the responsibilities such as those of the Olympic Park Legacy Company but keeping his planning authority as the regions loose theirs. Crossrail, London’s new east-west rail line, will proceed as planned.
Still, many details affecting planning have still to be thrashed out and fought over. The Localism Bill will de debated in the Commons in December, and could go to committee in January and the Lords in March, with earliest adoption in July (although many see this as highly optimistic given the number of measures).
The government is also working on a national planning framework.
Some of it could be good news. Planners, I have discovered are disliked possibily as much as journalists, and if this is managed well it could help rebuild trust in the planning process. Consultation will have to become real, not just a box to be ticked as communities insist on a planning system that is responsive to their needs (whether they actually want to run it is another story). Before they have even started planning, planners will have to go and speak to the local community to guage what they want and need, which means my skills may come in handy.