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Tuesday, 8 November 2011

"Planning Take A Leaf Out Of The Bailhache Book!"

The planning system must be unblocked

From John Henwood.
HEARD the one about the architect, the developer and the building services provider? Well, it’s a story worth telling.

A short time ago the architect told me that there was about a quarter of a billion pounds worth of construction held up within the Planning Department’s labyrinthine and ponderous processes. He described Planning’s normal stance thus: ‘The presumption is refusal unless you can persuade us otherwise’. He made it clear that although his own firm was affected, self-interest was not at the top of his agenda.

A short time later, the developer, who is seeking to carry out work in one of the less attractive areas of town, related his experience. He had paid around £55,000 in planning fees and spent a similar sum on other requirements necessary for an application. The then Planning Minister had initially expressed strong support for the proposal, ‘just the sort of thing we’re looking for’, but more than two years on the Planning department had invited him to withdraw the scheme or face having it rejected. Apparently, it was not what they were looking for after all. He was considering seeking legal advice.

A few days on, the supplier of specialist building services told me of his experience. He was required to provide a three-year business plan as part of what seemed to be a very straightforward proposal for employee accommodation. When he challenged the requirement, on the basis that economic circumstances made it almost impossible to predict circumstances three years hence, he was advised to "MAKE IT UP".

Three individuals, three employers, unconnected except for the fact that their businesses are being put at risk, as are the jobs of their employees. Who are they? None of them is willing to be identified, for fear of reprisals.

So, around £250,000,000 worth of construction work is held up within a Planning department predisposed to refuse everything; that which gets the political nod is rejected at officer level; business plans are called for, but only, apparently, so that some functionary can put a tick in the relevant box.

What emerges is a department that is so inward looking, inefficient and indecisive that it is bringing a vital part of Jersey’s economy almost to a standstill. As I write this, construction firms are laying people off.

Recently the Treasury Minister announced another tranche of fiscal stimulus cash, much of which will be aimed at the construction sector. However, the sum proposed is a drop in the bucket compared with the volume of commercial work held up within the bowels of a constipated Planning department. Instead of throwing more public money at a problem, would it not be better simply to move the planning blockage?

Any expectation of improvement in the changing of ministers was very short lived. While there seems to be universal agreement that too much power is concentrated in the Minister’s hands, the present incumbent has apparently declined to spread the responsibility more widely. It would appear unlikely that his tenure will last beyond mid-November and it is absolutely essential that whomever the States elects to hold this vital office will, as a first task, run the drain rods through the Planning department and unblock the system.

Our economy has caught a nasty cold and as a consequence more people are losing their employment. In terms of GVA, construction is worth more than hospitality, agriculture and manufacturing combined and if we could release some more of the work that is known to be held up in Planning it might help prevent the cold turning into something worse.

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