Blog: 5 August 2020Radical reform pending?

Iain Painting

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Iain Painting

Planning Director

London office

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After months of speculation, we now have confirmation of an announcement this week regarding the introduction of a form of zonal planning. As always, much will lie in the detail.

The planning system has long been bemoaned as being bureaucratic and holding back development. There is little doubt in my mind that the planning system has done much to create valuable places and frame development, but it is the progress of plan preparation which remains too slow and has failed to deliver the land required to meet development, and notably housing needs in the right places, at the right time. The current system has evolved over time and has as a result become over-burdened by wider considerations. In my view, and many others within this profession, a review is long overdue, but we must be willing to ask ourselves whether the challenges we face are a result of system or operator failure?

Fundamentally, the planning system operates on two core levels - setting the spatial framework for consenting and the development consenting process itself. When securing an allocation (with site specific policy for large schemes), planning permission, and discharging details/reserved matters there is however much duplication and there is clearly an opportunity streamline the layers of consents required.

Looking at the environmental aspects alone for example, the site allocation is subject to a Sustainability Appraisal or Strategic Environmental Assessment; the outline an Environmental Impact Assessment (where relevant); and this is then reviewed again at the detailed stage. The range of issues to be considered in each of these have become ever wider and include matters that I would suggest, should sit elsewhere (building regulations for example).

At a spatial level however, the plan making system challenge is significant. The key issue here is any review of the consenting regime, as is now proposed, is reliant upon an effective spatial framework. We have long argued the need for a national plan and certainly, regional ‘policy’ (such as for the Oxford /Cambridge corridor) to guide development in key policy areas. Decisions as to the spatial framework must be taken at the right scale. Can a neighbourhood plan or even a local plan balance the competing needs of a wide strategic area? Especially when they are relying only on the duty to co-operate, which does not apply to the Mayor of London in any event? On one of our recent podcasts we discussed this and considered that a move to larger Unitary Authorities may aid this challenge, but do the government really understand or want to lead us towards this type of move?


Of course, we must be careful what we wish for. It would be a travesty if a review of the consenting regime resulted in poor places or poor quality buildings, at a time when the recognition of quality, the importance of public realm and our environment upon health and community is so well recognised and debated.

We also need to innovate.

I was fortunate enough to be asked to give evidence to the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission. Such experiences are always beneficial, forcing you to evaluate your own position as to how to secure design quality. The Commission’s recommendations make interesting reading and the media reports over the weekend trailed the use of design codes. Whilst I sat at the launch of the final report, I was struck by the lack of ‘positive’ examples that were contemporary in their architecture. It would be a shame if we reverted to ‘chocolate box’ architecture with the creation of the ‘Vicwardian Anywheresville’.

An effective planning system requires trust. After all, it was established to regulate the use and development of land in the public interest. This should be reflected in an effective spatial strategy. Once this is in place, then reform of the consenting process can be implemented with clarity as to the objectives and outcomes sought. However, without cross-boundary spatial matters to guide development being properly addressed, loosening the reigns on more “detailed” aspects of the current system will simply cause more problems than it will solve.

There is much that can be improved in the operation of the planning system and the system itself, but we must be wary of the law of unintended consequences. As an example, the CIL regime was heralded as an opportunity to transform development contributions against the perceived failure of s106. What we have now are impenetrable regulations and a lack of transparency. It is also worth noting that every government or minister that seeks to simplify or speed up the planning system appears only to make it more complicated.

We await Jenrick’s announcement with relish but also trepidation. Change is good, but we need to fight as an industry to make sure we are changing the right bits. 

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Planning reform, zonal planning, build back better