This week’s release of the UK Government White Paper on proposed reforms to the planning system in England has kicked off a 12-week consultation that could usher in the most radical overhaul since the Second World War. But can such sweeping changes to the system be delivered within this Parliament?
In a typically bombastic foreword by Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister evoked a series of building-related metaphors to describe a planning system that is “not fit for human habitation”, comparing the changes introduced by the Conservative government in 2012 to “a new landlord stripping all the asbestos from the roof”. These new proposals, he said, mark an end to “painting over the damp patches” by delivering a whole new system, built “from the ground up”.
The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, returned to the “levelling up” agenda, suggesting the UK’s lockdown brought issues in the planning system to the fore, highlighting the plight of those living in substandard homes, unable to access shops or parks; or without anywhere to live at all. He also expressed a desire to create “a more diverse and competitive housing industry”, where smaller companies can compete with the big players.
It is this balancing act that the government is grappling with. How can the planning system enable much-needed development, particularly in sustainable and affordable housing, which is acting as the key driver for this reform, while at the same time giving communities more influence over what gets built where? How, in the words of the Secretary of State, can planning reform succeed in “cutting red tape, but not standards”?
There is little disagreement that the planning system, right across the UK, is too complicated. Most developers will tell you that it still takes far too long to deliver important schemes, with the potential to transform communities, enhance local infrastructure and improve people’s lives. Part of the reason for this is that the process itself is archaic, and relies on outdated technology – two areas that could be set to change dramatically.
The White Paper – which only proposes changes in England, rather than the devolved planning authorities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – promises to put a greater emphasis on quality and sustainability of development. It also proposes an overhaul of the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) – the latest process for assessing developer contributions to local infrastructure – describing it as “complex, protracted and unclear”.
So, what is likely to change and how will the different organisations involved in the sector react? Well, one of the biggest changes is to the role of Local Plans. Planning authorities have typically spent years developing complex plans that map out their planning policies and development objectives over an extended period, with landowners submitting candidate sites and individual applications being assessed against these plans, as well as other relevant planning policies.
The proposal is for Local Plans to be vastly simplified – with areas categorised as ‘Growth’ (suitable for substantial development), ‘Renewal’ or ‘Protected’ – and communities having a far greater say into how these categories are attributed. For this to work, planning authorities will have obligations to engage local communities and consult with them far more effectively, using new technology to create more visual, map-based plans to replace the complex, wordy documents that exist today.
This call for more innovative, digitally-focused engagement and consultation is something that Freshwater welcomes, especially at local authority level. The key benefit of enhancing engagement around Local Plans is that individuals can be encouraged to think about the big picture, rather than being asked whether they support a new development at the end of their street.
The White Paper also calls for everyone to become more ambitious for the places and infrastructure we create in the future. This could be in terms of quality of design and construction, better plans for energy efficiency and the conservation of habitats, or for more ambitious projects that benefit everyone – the developers with the vision to create them, those that live, work or travel through them, as well as the wider population.
But while there is plenty of ‘carrot’ for developers – fast-tracked applications, more clarity and greater consistency – the White Paper also threatens some ‘stick’. The PM is promising a crack-down on developers who “dodge their obligations”, while the new Infrastructure Levy is designed to remove loopholes and capture a greater share of the uplift in land value to be spent in improving infrastructure.
Over the next three months, the debate will be lively, as a multitude of organisations and interested stakeholder groups dissect the detail and have their say. Throughout October, a series of Virtual Conferences on various aspects of planning – from Consultation and Stakeholder Engagement, through to the future of Local Plans and the Community Infrastructure Levy – will be staged by Freshwater’s sister company, Waterfront.
Although some of the contributors may be hastily revising their presentations, one thing is certain, there’ll be no shortage of views on how many of the government’s 24 reform proposals are realistic. The bigger question, perhaps, is whether these reforms can deliver the housing and infrastructure England needs to build a fairer society and fuel its economic recovery.