It was billed as the biggest reform of England’s planning system since the 1947 Town & Country Planning Act. I’m not sure it quite lives up to this billing but the proposals in the ‘White Paper’ are substantial and do represent a huge change to the way in which the system operates. Crucially, by delivering certainty to developers, the proposed changes represent a big shift away from the current tendency to resist development. There is still a fundamental problem that the government has chosen to dodge – how land markets operate – but there are a lot of good proposals that make for a positive change:
- Simplifying the local plan process is probably
the biggest plus for the ‘White Paper’ – this process takes too long, is based
on voluminous and often contradictory analyses, and is too detailed. I am taken
with the suggestion in the ‘White Paper’ that Examination by a Planning
Inspector could be replaced with a local self-examination – this would
potentially reinforce the position of the local planning authority in the new
system and avoid the sort of Mexican stand-off we’ve seen, for example, with
- Granting permission in principle on allocated sites not only gives certainty to developers but it also reduces the power of NIMBY groups to prevent or, more commonly, delay development. I remember a planning committee chair describing the refusing of a permission on a site where he knew it would get granted on appeal as a ‘fine’ for the developer’s (in his opinion) bad behaviour. Permission in principle prevents this sort of arrogance from planning authorities.
- Anyone who has waded through a local plan or two will be struck by the lack of maps. Trying to find a digital, searchable document showing the boundaries of Bradford’s ‘green belt’ is a real challenge. It will be a real step forward to have local plans presented on an online, searchable map rather than in a suite of hard to manage documents uploaded to a website.
- Reducing the need for public consultation on individual planning applications (it’s allocated to a zone and therefore we know, ceteris paribus, whether the principle of development is established) allows public consultation to focus on the principles in the plan rather than the marshalling of often NIMBY objections to development
- Streamlining environmental assessments further reduces the risk of delays and this is helped further by proposals to speed up appeals and to reduce the tendency of politicians to push the decision to a quasi-legal process so as to avoid blame for the decision
These are big changes but not fundamental alterations to the nationalised system created by the 1947 Act. The most significant change in the ‘White Paper’ is the proposal for just three zones – growth, renewal and protected – rather than the bewildering list of classes, designations, and allocations under the current system. And while the principle of zoning is a good one, the government has chosen to include an essentially arbitrary land use designation, ‘green belt’, within its description of ‘protected’. This maintains the myth that ‘green belt’ exists to ‘protect’ something rather than the more prosaic truth which is that ‘green belt’ exists to prevent urban extension.
National policies (from flood protection through habitat concerns to National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty) will mean that a considerable part of England’s land area will fall automatically into a ‘protected’ definition. Adding ‘green belt’ seems to have been done to fend off possible objections from suburban MPs - the words of Philip Davies, MP for Shipley could have been uttered by a hundred or so other MPs: “My main priority is to stop Bradford Council from constantly concreting over the Green Belt in my constituency”. Not that (at least judging from the view out my window) this concreting is happening but MPs know that there are votes in “Save the Green Belt” (and votes to be lost by not saving it).
The problem is that, having ducked the ‘green belt’ issue, government then recognised that the planning system would still act to prevent land markets from operating efficiently, especially in areas where property values (and land values) tell us there is a large unmet demand for housing. It isn’t a secret that most of these areas are those with extensive ‘green belt’. We have retained the related myth that urban containment acts to increase the reuse of urban land when we know that this isn’t the case. The ‘Create Streets’ idea that modest densification is possible on a street-by-street basis is very appealing on paper but, as anyone who has looked into highways adoption will know, getting the necessary agreement is unlikely verging on impossible.
Planning authorities under the new system may need to zone some ‘green belt’ as ‘growth’ but, as with the current system, the allocation will be precisely matched to the housing need assessment with the result that there is no downward pressure on land values – the places remain unaffordable (and affordability is only addressed through either subsidy or social rent). Meanwhile other authority leaders roll out a different myth: that the barrier to brownfield development is the lack of government funding (“If Government fund the viability gap on brownfield developments they will find that many development opportunities will be unlocked on unused brownfield land all across the district”) when the problem is a lack of actual demand for housing.
There is a related problem in that the government proposes flexibility on design codes running the risk that this will be used to prevent certain forms of home (e.g. small homes, flats or large family homes) rather than to facilitate the ‘beauty’ that the government is so keen on. Design codes are an excellent idea but not (as we have seen with US zoning systems) when they are used to exclude minorities, prevent affordable housing, and increase development costs.
I doubt that the changes in the ‘White Paper’ will address the affordability crisis because the land market will remain dysfunctional in both high demand and low demand areas. It will make for a more reliable development control system and will reduce the power of NIMBY groups but, for all the talk of ‘build, build, build’, we will still have a system that puts the interests of current suburban fringe residents ahead of housing for a new generation.