The future of the planning system in England: do we need measured reform or a complete overhaul?
5 mins read
The Government’s "once in a generation" proposed reforms to the planning system have made the headlines in recent months as radical changes have been outlined(1).
The Housing Communities and Local Government Committee has now published its own report on the proposals after seeking views from interested parties in the planning sector and the public. The recommendations clearly seek further detail and clarification, but do they lead to complete reform or is a more measured approach needed.
The Government’s proposed reforms to the planning system were announced in August 2020(2). A common view is that the White Paper lacks detail in many areas; a theme which continues in this report.
A pertinent point made by one of the participants is that the complexities within the planning system should be recognised, as well as the; “history of planning reform that includes well-intentioned reforms leading to unintended consequences.” Perhaps it is time to reflect on lessons learned in the past and consider the positive aspects of the current system that may benefit from measured reform, rather than a complete overhaul of a system.
The Government’s three areas proposal
A significant element of the Government’s Planning White Paper is the proposed move towards a zonal approach to planning and the introduction of ‘growth’, ‘renewal’, and ‘protected’ areas. This has been controversial, with comments stating that the proposed areas are too restrictive and do not reflect the complexity of the areas that local plans need to cover.
The committee states that there is a lack of detail about the three areas approach, which has made it difficult to assess how it would function. Its concerns include:
- Its potential unsuitability in urban areas
- Whether local plans will have enough detail for developers to know whether their proposals will qualify for permission in principle and avoid using planning permission procedures
- Uncertainty over the purposes of renewal areas and the level of protection to be afforded in protected areas.
Overall, the committee is unpersuaded that the Government’s zoning-based approach will produce a quicker, cheaper and democratic planning system. Its essential message is that more detail will be needed when designating each of the three areas. It suggests ‘sub areas’ within ‘renewal’ areas that protect these from permission in principle and create ‘highly protected’ areas alongside a ‘protected’ category. Although many countries have adopted effective zoning systems, the simplistic proposal of three zones will need to either be expanded or supported with clear parameters and standards; however, we can not overlook the complexities of land use that vary significantly from one local authority to another.
Creating high quality local plans by involving local people
The committee welcomes the sentiment to speed up the plan-making process and to make local plans more focused and shorter, but it doesn’t believe that the proposed 30-months is enough time to develop local plans that are high quality and well engaged. It’s also concerned by the approach towards public involvement in plan-making and stresses that; “The public should be consulted about a draft version of the local plan before, not concurrently with, its submission to the Secretary of State.” The proposed timetable leans to a resource-intense first half to prepare evidence and produce the Plan in 18 months and doesn’t give any indication of how the additional 12 months will be allocated for local authorities that benefit from having a recently adopted Plan in place. If this timetable was to go ahead as outlined, it seems that in addition to upskilling, Local Plan teams will also require support from development management staff to help produce design guides and masterplans; however, there is more thought needed around this, linking back to what the proposed zoning of areas might mean.
The value of neighbourhood planning has been commended again, as there appears to be a renewed focus on supporting neighbourhood forums and local authorities to produce neighbourhood plans that can reflect the needs of the local community. Local empowerment and public involvement in the Plan making process is a must to gain greater trust and credibility of proposals going forward. As we have seen, there has been greater levels of participation as a result of widening the scope for participation due to Covid restrictions so we should continue to explore how we can adopt these practices in the long term to enhance accessibility and therefore the quality and breadth of community engagement as an important part of plan making. This is an area that will also benefit from additional skills training to ensure planners make best use of technology as well as facilitation of digital engagement events. We cannot completely abandon current methods however, as we have noted in a number of consultations conducted during the pandemic, there is still a need to ensure that there are various ways to engage in the process to promote inclusivity.
Reaching the right formula for housing The committee supports the principle of using a standard method that applies across the country. However, one of the main criticisms is that this does not promote the ‘levelling up’ agenda for the north of England, and serves to increase housing in London and the south east.A rather surprising recommendation is to permit local authorities to undertake their own assessment of housing need if they disagree with the figures set nationally, which ultimately would be a decision for the Planning Inspectorate to determine if necessary. Although simplification of the process is welcomed, there is more required in terms of the application across the country as a whole and local authorities are becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of clarity in recent months. As we are all too familiar with this rather long standing debate on housing need, the Committee have asked for greater clarity on the evidential basis for delivering 300,000 homes and how this can realistically be achieved, in particular given constraints and protected assets/spaces. Survey feedback has generally supported a Green Belt review, which would also help inform the former query in relation to delivery.
Delivering new homes faster
The committee has asked for greater clarity on the evidential basis for delivering 300,000 homes. It wants to know how this can realistically be achieved, particularly given constraints and protected assets and spaces. A further point that will be welcomed by many is the recognition of build-out rates as core to the housing challenge, not just the planning system. Various recommendations such as multi-tenure construction, Development Corporations and incentivising SME builders have been suggested as potential levers for improvement. A further commitment to delivery, is to consider a limit of 18 months following discharge of planning conditions for work to commence on site. If work has not progressed to the satisfaction of the local authority the planning permission could be revoked. The developer would then have a further 18 months to complete the build, with due consideration of scale and individual circumstances, after which a full council tax levy could be applied to incomplete units. Implementation of such measures would benefit from a trial period to determine effectiveness – it could hinder delivery further if there is any uncertainty for developers to finish schemes within the timeframe. There could also be additional work for Planning departments renewing permissions after 18 months so it would be reasonable for renewal applications within the normal timeframe to have a simple extension for another 18 months rather than having to go through the full application process again.
The planning system in England is complex and there is no quick fix to resolve the well reported issues. However, it is clear that that the Housing Communities and Local Government Committee feels there is still some way to go to get the reforms right. Further consultation on the proposals is crucial, as has been noted by the Committee. Public involvement is vital to ensure that we can create the places that communities need. Taking a measured approach would provide the opportunity to ensure more voices are heard so the proposed reforms don’t lead to unintended consequences. As we continue to work with local authorities across the country, who have been facing some doubt in progressing their Plans, our advice remains to avoid delay as changes in legislation may still be a little further in the future than initially expected.
Capita’s Planning Policy Manager
Maeliosa is an experienced Planner with over ten years’ experience across public, private and academic sectors and is currently Policy Manager of the North East and Northern Ireland Hubs within Capita. She has successfully supported a number of local authorities across the UK in helping to progress their Local Plans to examination stage, providing strategic advice, critical thinking and project management.