Category: Opinions | August 06, 2020
The prime minister, in his “build build build” speech of 30 June, has indicated a radical overhaul of the planning system, with the objective of ensuring speed, national infrastructure delivery and further deregulation to stimulate economic growth. The perception is that the planning system is the problem and that it acts as a block to development. The announcement is still thin on detail, and a planning policy paper on this is expected later this month. However, the government has said that it envisages the most radical alteration since 1947, which might involve fundamental change to the whole approach to producing plans and making planning decisions.
This may well take up some of the recommendations of recent reports published by the Policy exchange (Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century, January 2020) and Centre for Cities (Capital Cities, June 2019), in which both advocated for a flexible zoning system – a shift towards a rules-based by- right system, where developers who want to develop land can do so automatically without needing planning permission, provided their proposal complies with building regulations and local plans. As a principle, once a local plan is agreed, the planning system should allow new homes to be built unless the local authority explicitly says “no”, rather than the present discretionary approach to development based on whether a local authority grants permission. Planning decisions are presently made with regard to a local plan and “other material considerations”. This discretion actually already provides for a lot of flexibility.
However, a perception of widespread negativity is misjudged. It is not that too few planning consents are being granted. The 362,000 residential permissions granted in England in 2018/19 actually exceeds the government target of 300,000 homes per year by the mid 2020s. statistically, the number of local plans adopted since the streamlining of thousands of pages planning guidance in 2012, to form the National Planning Policy framework, has increased.
The “presumption in favour” of granting permission has also had positive impacts. This has helped, but progress has been too slow and patchy, in part owing to the process, local politics and resourcing. The question is whether a “front-loaded” zonal system could work in this context? Perhaps a complex reform too far?
in March 2016 an industry respected Local Plans expert Group concluded a number of reforms, many of which were not adopted by government. History has indicated that proportionate reform is more likely to have an impact.
The problem with delivery
So what is the issue? The lack of delivery of these granted consents. The planning system is not the barrier, as Sir Oliver Letwin said in his report in 2018, whereby he made recommendations on how to close the significant gap between the number of housing completions and the amount of land allocated or permissioned on large sites in areas of high housing demand.
The reason for lack of delivery of consented schemes is multitude: the previous lack of bank lending on development projects; the underfunding of local planning authority planning departments, which has had consequential impact on the quality of service (for example, backlogs of reserved matter determinations and pre- commencement conditions to discharge); issues over the delivery of essential infrastructure that needs to be provided by statutory providers; the removal
of the regional planning tier; and site assembly issues, especially in relation to compulsory purchase.
Savills research identifies further key issues in the current planning system, including the time it takes for local authorities to produce a local plan (only 67% have an “up-to-date” plan and 40% of those now have plans which are more than five years old); and in respect of “joining up” issues such as the co-ordination of new infrastructure provision, with homes and new jobs. The age-old matter of protecting, and reviewing, the green belt to achieve the most sustainable outcomes is also something which has proved challenging.
However, the volume of delivery is not the only criterion on which the planning system can be judged. The NPPF sets out the goal of “contributing to the achievement of sustainable development”. Savills research shows that the UK planning system is not currently achieving these sustainable objectives in many locations. There is little relationship between employment growth and where new homes are being consented, and sites are frequently located far from existing public transport links.
More thought needs to be given to the design and delivery of homes to ensure residential development is both economically and environmentally sustainable. in short, we need to plan for development and infrastructure in the right places. That will meet need and engender delivery.
Dismantling the planning system in favour of zoning would be a radical solution. This would not result in faster planning permissions or better development quickly. A move to a zonal-based system will front-load resourcing to plan making, which will need investment in good local plans, at a pace never before seen, for all local authorities. in order to avoid the risk of poor quality design, investment will be needed to deliver well-produced design codes and local guidance along with other reforms.
The government will need to grapple with a relaxation of planning control that still ensures high-quality design
and places, given the recommendations recently made in the Living with Beauty report published by the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission to support the delivery of beautiful places by undertaking more meaningful, visually- based consultation on development projects. To get zoning right requires more, not less, planning.
Planning for social infrastructure
What we need is a more positive approach across a number of local authorities to plan-making. We need spatial plans and joined-up thinking. Planning is not all about housing. It is about ensuring places are sustainable; providing the necessary social infrastructure a housing development needs (for example, schools); tackling the climate crisis; creating social value; design and beauty; wellbeing; economic growth; and connectivity and accessibility. Good planning is positive. Planning is a facilitator of healthy, happy, sustainable communities.
As the royal Town Planning institute has said publicly, it is time that we should be strengthening and properly resourcing the planning system to enable it to play its full part in the post Covid-19 recovery. The RTPI has launched its Plan The
World We need campaign to ensure that planners are at the centre of a sustainable, resilient and inclusive recovery plan post Covid-19. We must plan the communities we live in. Planning is there for society as a whole and should allow us to level up and to remove inequality. Through planning, the government can enable the necessary climate and green revolution as part of the economic recovery.
There are a number of simple reforms which could be made to the present system without risking whole-scale reform, which will inevitably lead to a two- or three-year transition process. for example, the reintroduction of larger than local planning, in functional economic areas – perhaps allied to further local government rationalisation? We need more effective strategic planning that ensures better integration of planned homes, jobs and infrastructure across boundaries. The demise of regional planning bodies has led to a lack of coherent, structured plans and resulted in fragmented, disjointed, politically- driven (not need-driven) and inconsistent approaches being taken towards major development projects that could otherwise deliver much-needed homes, great places and economic benefits.
Interventions and incentives
The government could also make selective interventions, including a refresh of the NPPF to underpin a green economic recovery, and introduce further measures to increase levels of local plan adoption. We also need incentives within the planning system to increase density in the right locations, including mixed- use developments, and incentives to encourage both sustainable transport and greater recognition of micro-mobility in the larger cities. And, yes, incentives to drive the market too, for example by requiring planning for “buffers” over predicted development needs. A good start would also be finally fully resourcing planning departments in local planning authorities.
The only way we can create a resilient and sustainable future is if we plan, plan, plan. failing to plan is planning to fail. Let’s build back better by planning together.