Category: Opinions | August 13, 2020
The Government has published its long awaited White Paper ‘Planning for the Future’. The political rhetoric of ripping up England’s post-war planning rulebook and replacing it with a radically new system as well as blaming developers who “dodge their obligations” is still very apparent from the Foreword from the Prime Minister. Despite this rhetoric (which is misconceived and unfair), the White Paper is less radical than expected, some areas it covers are rather refreshing and some parts are ambitious and more detail and thought is required. I agree with the powerful words in the Foreword from the Secretary of State of how important a time it is for the planning system and what it can deliver. There is a real commitment to change. So yes we should embrace reform but there are ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ points in this White Paper that need to be considered carefully and refined over the 12 week consultation exercise and beyond.
Overhauling to make local plans more concise visual documents (by removing development management policies which will be set nationally through the NPPF) is to be welcomed. However, I am concerned that a lot of the detail will have to fall into the specifications of parameters and standards in the design codes, prior approval requirements and guidance. More thought is also required into transitional arrangements as we switch over to the new local plans as the Government should be careful not to halt the current process given local planning authorities are working on their current local plans.
I wholeheartedly support the ambition to embrace PropTech/PlanTech and to have digitisation. There have been so many good developments on this front which are transformative for public engagement/participation, and I hope that continues, but we should just bear in mind that the new systems that will come forward do not just become another ticking the box exercise with the computer saying ‘no’ or ‘yes’. Planners have to play a vital role here.
Creating beauty in development and through placemaking is also very welcomed. There are many key proposals for building beautifully (e.g. design codes; new expert design body; new chief officer for design and place making in each local planning authority etc). My concerns are that these proposals favour a rule based system over one that uses discretion and planning judgment, thus turning planning into ‘planning by numbers’ exercise. Not all good development can be planned for in the local plan or a design pattern book. So the Government needs to be careful that this does not undermine the innovation, creativity and placemaking the planning system is presently able to deliver when there is genuine collaboration and partnering between local planning authorities and developers.
Environmental protection and heritage assets
In the White Paper, the Government has indicated its intention to continue to meet “our domestic and international obligations” whilst taking opportunities to strengthen protections allowing Brexit. A more detailed consultation on this is planned in Autumn, but it appears that the Government’s aim is to streamline and speed up the environmental assessment process rather than removing/replacing it. This is to be welcomed so as to avoid the duplication of effort to carry out these different types of environmental assessments as well as to reduce the voluminous and highly technical nature of the current framework. However, the devil will be in the detail and I await the more detailed consultation in Autumn with interest.
As for listed building/conservation areas, the White Paper states that the system is working well (which I agree with) and only small tweaks to policy is required.
Post the consultation, if the Government wants to press on with these reforms, new local plans will need to be in place (using a defined template and within a tight 30 months timeframe) which takes us to the run up to the 2024 General Election, primary and secondary legislation will also be required as well as a new National Planning Policy Framework, which may all be in place by the end of 2022.
I am not entirely convinced this timescale is possible. Either the 2024 aspiration date will need to shift or the proposals via new local plans, legislation, guidance etc will all be rushed through which only means issues down the line. It is also worth noting that the accompanying document ‘Changes to the Current Planning System’ has a shorter consultation period (1 October 2020) and the changes proposed in that document are intended to be implemented much earlier (the changes covered are changes to the standard method for accessing local housing need; securing First Homes through developer contributions in the short term until the transition to a new system; supporting SME builders by temporarily lifting the small sites thresholds below which developers do not need to contribute to affordable housing; and extending the current Permission in Principle to major development). If the reforms are successful in reshaping the planning landscape as the Government hopes, the real rewards will not be seen until next Parliament.
Local Plans/Zoning/Community engagement
I can see the attraction of zoning (which is not zoning as you find in other parts of the world, but a way of ‘zoning' our current planning system), but it seems too simplistic that all the land in the country can be divided into three zones/areas (‘growth’, ‘renewal’ or ‘protection’). Each zone/area offers different routes to how permission is acquired and it will be interesting to see if new towns are to be potentially granted through a development consent order. There are many ways to gain planning consent and I think this may add to the complexity of development management process rather than simplifying it. Identifying which land goes into which category is also going to be the major battlefield of the local plan process - especially as growth zones will not have provisions of public involvement through the development management process and the local planning authority’s role would be seriously limited too. I am not entirely convinced that this is going to get the system moving, even by front-loading public participation to the plan-making stage, as I foresee challenges ahead. This will also raise questions by many as to public participation, whether this creates true public participation when there is currently a full and meaningful consultation at planning application stage (i.e. down stream) compared to the 30 months proposed deadline for putting plans in place (i.e. upstream). However, I know the Government is trying to remove the debate from planning to get things going and we have seen this when it comes to development consent orders by removing the debate on ‘need’ when it came to national infrastructure projects by creating National Policy Statements. Equally, where will the resourcing come for all of this. I certainly welcome streamlining of the development process, but it needs more thinking and resourcing and also alleviating fears over public participation by capturing the imagination of communities to take a very active role at local plan making.
CIL/Section 106 obligations and infrastructure
As much as I hugely welcome reform in this area, a lot of detail still needs to be worked through and I do not think we will see the end entirely of section 106 obligations (or their equivalent) as in-kind delivery on site will need to be captured through those. The Government intends to scrap section 106 obligations and introduce just a new consolidated CIL, whereby there will be a fixed proportion of the development value above a certain threshold with a mandatory nationally set rate. The amount raised depends upon the level of surplus achieved by the sale value of the final development product over a notional base value needed to secure viable development. My concern is that this is a ‘one size fits all’ solution and setting the new levy at a level that will not deter development will be difficult. There also seems no scope for a local planning authority to refuse planning permission on the basis that the development proposals will not secure the required infrastructure. Some schemes will not be subject to the new levy and a national rate poses many problems. Even the changes proposed to capture PDR schemes will not make such a huge difference. I see more of the north and south divide issues here and this will definitely not assist the Government with their levelling up agenda. I do not feel that this will benefit all across the country and the funding of infrastructure has not properly been thought through and more work is required.
The biggest problem with the current system is not that it is all inherently bad as the Government makes out but that it has not been sufficiently financially and skilled resourced, especially at local planning department levels where planners are under-resourced and demoralised. Nowhere in the White Paper does the Government propose on how to grapple with this issue, even though there is emphasis that resourcing is needed and planners should focus on pro-active plan-making. It leaves the workforce planning and skills development to the local planning authority and expects digitisation to assist and there will be a new performance framework introduced. The Government’s view is that the cost of operating the new planning system should be funded by the beneficiaries of planning gain and by application fees (i.e. by landowners and developers) rather than national or local taxpayer. I do not think that this is right nor sufficient and a more central funded approach is required.
It seems that affordable housing will instead be a purchased good rather than delivered through the planning system. This is because it is to be financed from the monies raised by the new levy. Yes, this would make the system more efficient as it will be grant funding rather that developer delivery, but what happens if the land value falls, how is the quality of affordable houses to be controlled and will all this lead to mixed and balanced communities? The White Paper makes no mention of delivery and I wonder if an in-kind delivery on site through some sort of a section 106 obligation will be required. As such, we are not going to witness the end of section 106 obligations or their equivalent.
Net Zero agenda
It feels like the White Paper has missed a real opportunity to further the climate change agenda. It seems to have given the same old nod to environmental sustainability but not making clear what it means or providing new ways forward. The planning system is described as “only one of the tools” needed to mitigate and adapt to climate change and very little detail is given.
The individual elements of the proposals will be developed over the 12 week consultation period and beyond. It is fair to say, that we do not do change well but we need to be brave and take bold steps to make the planning system better for all. The first (absolutely fantastic) question the White Paper asks is “What three words do you associate most with the planning system in England?”. I am sure we can all think of three words (good and bad).