Plan, Plan, Plan to Build, Build, Build

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By Martha Grekos, Director (Barrister) at Martha Grekos Legal Consultancy Limited 

This week Boris Johnson promised us the biggest planning system shake-up since the Second World War to help kick-start the economy. The announcement is still thin on detail, and a planning policy paper on this is expected later on this month. However, the radical transformation envisages to involve fundamental change to the whole approach to producing plans and making planning decisions. This may well take up some of the recommendations of the recent report published by the right-wing think-tank The Policy Exchange (‘Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century’, January 2020) given the author of the report, Jack Airey, has been appointed as No 10’s housing and planning special advisor. 

The Policy Exchange’s report comes across as very anti-planning and very pro-free-market, advocating 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. 

The problem with “build, build, build” is that this is not an accurate diagnosis of the problems the planning system is experiencing. It is not that too few planning consents are being granted. The 362,000 residential permissions granted in England in 2018/2019 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 1,000s of pages of 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. 

The issue is 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. Issues are: the previous lack of bank lending on development projects; the underfunded local planning authorities planning departments which has had consequential impact on the quality of service (e.g. 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; local politics; and site assembly issues especially in relation to compulsory purchase or private acquisitions. In addition, there is the issue of the time it takes for local authorities to produce a local plan, the co-ordination of new infrastructure provision with homes and new jobs, and that old chestnut of whether or not to build on the Green Belt. 

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 not ever seen, for all local authorities. As developers, the public and local political councillors will only be able to engage at the point of formation of these plans, surely it will mean that it will take longer to formulate these given everyone will be debating over every single nuance. It seems like another front-loading exercise that will simply add delay. Also, 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. 

In addition, implicit in the Policy Exchange’s report is that the experiment with localism has been unsuccessful. The report places much of the blame on the discretionary nature of planning decision- taking and argues that the role of local political councillors in development management decisions should be reduced in order to eliminate uncertainty.

Once the boundaries of the development and non-development zones are defined and the associated development management criteria are adopted, local political councillors would play no part in individual development management decisions under their proposals. That is very different to localism and begs the question of how popular support for and confidence in the planning process would be secured under the new arrangements? It also seems to be contrary to the theme of public participation by the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission report (‘Living with Beauty’) which urges more extensive consultation early in the development plan process. It argues that local planning authorities should have the capacity to undertake more meaningful, visually based, consultation on development projects using digital resources. It also highlights that communities should be empowered to promote and undertake community development projects of their own through an expansion of community right to build orders and streamlined procedures for the designation and acquisition of assets of community value.

The Government will need to grapple with a relaxation of planning control that still ensures high quality design and places. History has also indicated that proportionate reform is more likely to have an impact rather than a radical solution of dismantling the planning system in favour of zoning. 

Volume of delivery is not what a planning system should be judged on. The planning system should instead focus on addressing the long-term challenges and opportunities our society faces. And that means a more integrated quality-based approach based on a shared vision of the kind of places we want to live in. 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 (e.g. schools); tackling the climate crisis; creating social value; design and beauty; well-being; economic growth; and it’s about connectivity and accessibility. Good planning is positive. Planning is a facilitator of healthy, happy, sustainable communities. 

As the RPTI 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 have 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 the society as a whole and should allow us to level up and to remove inequality. Through the planning system, the Government can enable the necessary climate and green revolution, as part of the economic recovery. 

The CEO of the RPTI has openly said the “planner-bashing rhetoric coming out of Government this week has deeply concerned me – not only on behalf of the planning industry but also on behalf of every single community in the UK.” The Government needs to stop heading on a populist trajectory based on a fallacious presumption that planning is restricting house-building. Planning does not inhibit growth. We can create a resilient and sustainable future but only if we “plan, plan, plan”. 

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