HM Treasury’s concerns about the drag on the economy due to our increasingly sclerotic planning system have been evident for years. They first emerged with the apparently uncommissioned McKinsey report in the late 1990s which pointed the finger of blame for such buildings as hotels and faded office blocks at the resistance to development and redevelopment endemic in the planning system.

Architects will know that since then things have got worse. A planning application used to be a four-page TP1, a location plan, certificates and some drawings. Now APP1 runs to 12 pages and a mountain of studies and statements for the most modest of proposals. As for policies, just as we got close to national coverage with Unitary Development Plans (UDP) and Local Plans, whoops, the introduction of a new planning act (2004) meant starting all over again with Frameworks, Core Strategies and the rest. Planning Policy Guidance (PPG) turned to Planning Policy Statements (PPS) as national policy got ever-more deterministic, spatial planning got lost in a fog and the long-standing ‘presumption in favour of development’ (vintage 1923) became swamped by ‘plan-led’ decisions with increasingly invasive conditions.

The process needs tackling, not the policies. I predicted here that APP1’s introduction would lead to a ‘train crash’. The Killian-Pretty review was set up to count the bodies and tried to get the system back on track, but the defensive stance of local planning authorities that demand vast wodges of information to cover every possible angle goes on.

Relief may be in sight. If policies have to be clear and unambiguous and lower-tier plans have to be compliant, then proposals that meet requirements simply have to demonstrate the fact to avoid the need for making a planning application. Qualified agents, who might be architects, would assess and certify such compliance, leaving officers and authorities to focus on policy and the controversial applications they are left with. Add to this the current idea that they can charge whatever fee they like and 41aj 01.12.11 the door is open to competition on the lines of building control: then the process really could improve.

Planning got the biggest walloping, and highest profile, of its life in the chancellor’s budget speech this year. He highlighted the need for brevity in national policy, scrapping 1,000-plus pages of PPSs in favour of 50 pages of National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). The basic idea, having also removed regional spatial policies, is that locals set policy so long as it is in general compliance with the next tier up. This works for London borough plans vis-à-vis the mayor’s London Plan, so it may just work nationally.

More specifically, the chancellor made a pitch for a simple relaxation of one bit of the Use Classes Order (UCO), namely to allow B1 business space to become C3 housing. This would release lots of value into the economy immediately and free owners and entrepreneurial developers to generate many new, often low cost, affordable homes.

Planners have resisted this idea – it removes some controls – and a howl has gone up from Middle England against the draft NPPF, on the wholly misguided basis that a presumption in favour of development (and growth?) is something new.

Being a draft and given the amount of noise, ministers have said they will make adjustments before issuing the NPPF by next April. They will give planning authorities time to get their plans up to speed (but correctly mutter they have had eight years already). Worryingly, rumours swirl that ‘ministers are wobbling’, not just under the onslaught from the Daily Telegraph and National Trust, but even on the simple change to the UCO.

All this uncertainty delays investment decisions of course and so holds back new work for architects and contractors. Once the NPPF is published, there may be a void in policy in some areas that creates a window of opportunity for the industry and a period of planning by appeal, but in the immediate future the UCO change may offer more immediate opportunities.

To offset some concerns, the UCO change could be limited to units of up to, say, 1,000m2, and apply both ways – ie freedom to change from residential to business use and vice versa. Constraints on home-working (the imposition of business rates and Capital Gains Tax on part of the home) should be relaxed. This will create more space for employment than may be lost to housing and the effects should be monitored for a period of, say, three years, which will get things moving.

If these last ideas are familiar, they should be. They have been in the ACA planning manifesto since 2006 and were included in the RIBA/ACA Task Force for Recovery proposals in 2009.

If ministers are even wobbling on this simple and obvious change, then what hope for a serious reform of the system?