Planning for a better future?

The Planning White Paper, published last week, promises radical reform “unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War” to create “a whole new planning system for England”, a system that will encourage “sustainable, beautiful, safe and useful development”. It is perhaps unfortunate, then, that the front cover of “Planning for the Future” shows an aerial view of Tregunnel Hill in Newquay – a new estate plonked down in the middle of the town without any reference to its surroundings, with box-like houses, pitched roofs with no eaves, tiny fenced-in gardens and not a scrap of greenery to be seen. If this is a vision of the future, heaven help us.

But to begin with, there are some positive aspects to the White Paper. For me, any government that wants to “build, build, build” has some merit, although this obviously depends on what is built and where, and whether it is affordable and of a high quality. The government is promising 300,000 homes a year but the danger is that the proposals will churn out Barratt boxes for first time buyers and executive homes, with few affordable homes in the mix.

The government also recognises that small builders have been in terminal decline in recent decades with the proportion of new homebuilding by SMEs dropping from 40% 30 years ago to just 12% today. If the proposals do unleash a new generation of smaller housebuilders, so much the better. But whether this decline is due to “planning red tape”, as claimed, or wider issues such as land prices, skills shortages or finance is debatable.

The proposals to digitise the planning system to make it smarter and more accessible and comprehensible to the layperson (no more notices on lamp posts), with visual plans rather than abstract policies also have some merit. As a member of my local town planning committee I have scrolled through loads of applications and the system is clunky without doubt.

Finally, the proposals to speed up the local plan process (down to 30 months and published plans shortened by two thirds) and to require local authorities both to have a local plan (only 50% do at present) and to enforce housebuilding numbers are to be commended.

But what exactly is the problem with the current system? Boris Johnson’s introduction makes the bold claim that “Thanks to our planning system, we have nowhere near enough homes in the right places”. Really? Nothing to do with right to buy or a failure to invest in affordable homes or our dysfunctional land market? A key theme of the paper is that planning takes too long. But an investigation by the BBC fact check unit found that 89% of major applications were decided within 13 weeks, or an agreed time (planning departments and developers may agree an extension to the 13-week time limit). It is true that larger developments take longer, but it seems that planning has become the scapegoat for wider failures (just as the scientists are likely to be blamed for wider Covid-19 failings).

 The two key proposals in the plan are a new zoning system and replacing the Community Infrastructure Levy and section 106 with a new Infrastructure Levy.

There will be a three-tier zoning system in local plans with growth areas, renewal areas and protected areas. In growth areas, outline planning permission would be automatic with local design codes in place. Renewal areas would allow some development, such as densification, whilst protected areas such as green belt, AONBs and SSSIs would remain protected. It is disappointing that the White Paper does not push for any selective development of green belts, something I have written about repeatedly in the past.

The new Infrastructure Levy will be based upon uplifts in land values with a national formula that promises more money from developers than under the present system. But given that a high proportion of affordable homes are provided via section 106 currently, there are worries that the number of genuinely affordable homes will be slashed, and, worryingly, the White Paper says local authorities will have greater discretion on how the money is spent. The ministry was so concerned about these criticisms that it rushed out a press release stating that “This new levy will raise more revenue than under the current system, ensuring at least as much affordable housing – any suggestion that it won’t is simply untrue”. However, it is still unclear how this will work in practice, given there are so many competing demands for CIL and section 106 money at present.

My key concern is that the White Paper is internally contradictory, with a looming conflict between faster planning and promises of greater democracy. That won’t work in practice, in my view. It says:

“Local councils should radically and profoundly re-invent the ambition, depth and breadth with which they engage with communities as they consult on Local Plans. Our reforms will democratise the planning process by putting a new emphasis on engagement at the plan-making stage. At the same time, we will streamline the opportunity for consultation at the planning application stage, because this adds delay to the process and allows a small minority of voices, some from the local area and often some not, to shape outcomes. We want to hear the views of a wide range of people and groups through this consultation on our proposed reforms.”

The government says only 1% of people engage in the local plan process at present and they want that to increase significantly, but experience suggests that it is always the usual suspects that are the most involved. The well-heeled, the well-housed and those who want less building and not more. I suspect there will be a revolt in the Tory heartlands once it is seen how much building will be required and that decisions are being taken away from local defenders of the faith in the town halls.

 

As for the title of this White Paper – Planning for the Future – it seems like a tautology to me. All planning is for the future, it can hardly be for the past. The question is whether the proposals create a future that is better or worse. Time will tell. In the meantime, everyone should respond to the consultation.

 

(This blog was first published by the Housing Quality Network in August 2020.)

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