So, there we have it. After much gossip trailed in the Sunday papers, the government released ‘Planning for the Future’, at one-minute past midnight last night, setting out proposals for reforming the planning system.
There are of course a range of issues and questions arising from the proposals and much will lie in the detail, but there is much of interest and in principle, commendable. The planning system has failed to deliver the land required in the locations or at the pace society needs. The planning system has become over-burdened by duplication and complexity. But in their strident and clearly articulated ambitions to streamline, care is required not to lose flexibility and innovation, nor to prohibit proper debate, scrutiny and consultation. Whether such a failure is a result of system or operator is a debate in itself, or indeed whether ‘blame’ lies elsewhere.
At the heart of an efficient planning system is an efficient process for setting the spatial framework. The government has pulled up short of committing to a national plan, which is disappointing given the agenda for re-balancing and infrastructure-led growth. Instead, the NPPF will be central, as the basis for determination and should therefore aid the avoidance of unnecessary repetition in local plans. But the absence of a commitment to a ‘national plan’ is lamentable.
There is after all a spatial and political reality to this. In response to the first iteration of the new standard method, Barton Willmore mapped the level of need that would be generated, by local authority. As a rough estimate 25% of need fell within London and 45% within London and the south east. The planning battle ground of the home counties will remain for some time to come. Can Local Authorities deliver in the national or regional or strategic interest when they are so tied to the context of local interest and decision-making? Abolition of the 5-year housing land supply test is also a huge concern, as despite government holding several tools through which they can intervene to tackle under-delivery, these are rarely utilised. Without the ‘stick’ of 5-year land supply, we need other mechanisms to drive delivery.
Today, local plans have become a manual of tired and formulaic policies for what you cannot do, not what you can. I wholeheartedly agree that plans should focus on the key aims, objectives and issues and set a framework for delivery. If this can be achieved in the newly prescribed 30 months’ time frame across the country, then fantastic. But this is a third of the average time (as reported in the paper) it takes to get a plan adopted currently. Stripping out the evidence base required at plan stage may well help, but how is this consistent with having allocations which effectively have outline planning permission?
The ambition to reduce duplication within the consenting regime is welcomed, and there is further scope for the expansion of permissions in principle and LDO’s, as well as the trailed widening of the role Development Consent Orders play in strategic development – something we outlined in a recent report. Whether the changes as proposed amount to zonal planning is a matter of definition. Let us focus on the issues in hand, not terminology.
The Planning Profession?
From a skills perspective, the focus on status given in the paper is important. We need to reform our planning system into one with status and pride. No one goes to University and studies for their post-grad, to grind their way through Reserved Matters and details pursuant. I have personally championed the role of Chief Planner and the need for it to be positioned as a key senior officer in local planning authorities, so the call for a new Chief Officer for Design & Placemaking is great to see.
Many questions, remain unanswered, so in summary I think our key questions to Robert Jenrick and the MHCLG at this point, via the consultation will be focused around:
- How can and will communities take difficult decisions that are in the wider strategic interest?
- Whilst the duty to co-operate has often not delivered, what do we put in its place? Some form of strategic decision-making process is surely required.
- How you balance standardisation and regulation against quality: does planning by numbers or rules result in quality and promote innovation?
- How do you maintain transparency and accountability whilst removing the issues that fail to be determined?
- If you remove the requirement for 5-year housing land supply, what sanction is imposed upon failing authorities?
- How do you balance need against constraint – we often quickly arrive at a need, it is the balancing of constraints and meeting unmet need from adjoining authorities where the challenge arises?
- How do we avoid the much-needed reform of CIL resulting in just another complex, unworkable system? CIL was promised as the great solution to infrastructure funding but what we ended up with doesn’t reflect the shared ambition.
Change and reform are needed. But before we can agree what form that takes, we need to come together to agree a core set of aims and ambitions and identify the duties of those who participate in and operate the system.
In streamlining, we need to be wary that we do not create further problems. People, communities, markets in the broadest sense do not always respond as intended by policy makers. These changes are proposed as a once in a generation opportunity, but the buildings, places and spaces that result will endure long after. Many buildings that were the product of the bold hope and ambition of post war redevelopment will no doubt continue to form the new ‘areas for renewal’, and we must learn from our previous mistakes!
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Planning reform, zonal planning, build back better