Planning for the Future: White Paper August 2020 – A Curate’s Egg

The launch of the Government’s proposals for overhauling the Planning System in England on Thursday 6 August, has drawn both consternation and a few supportive comments. Steve Maslen, Head of Sustainability and Environment looks at some of the issues.

The proposed new planning arrangements set out in the Government’s consultation White Paper, will, if implemented affect everyone in England. The popular press knew immediately it would affect its readers and listeners and so the White Paper has featured high on the news agenda.

A headline from the Guardian on the new proposals describes issues of fairness:

Attack on planning laws reveals a government that doesn’t play by the rules.

The Guardian, 6 August 2020

The Daily Mail published the headline:

Fears millions of new homes will be rushed through as Government’s major planning shake-up opens the floodgates for housing development to be automatically approved in some areas.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Mail Online, 2 August 2020

In the White Paper itself, the Government describe their proposals as a:

Radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War.

  Page 6, Planning for the Future: White Paper August 2020

The Daily Telegraph’s Philip Johnson is left wondering: “either this reform is going to be radical or it isn’t.” (4 August 2020)

What are the proposals, and are they radical?

The early part of the White Paper is a critique of the present system and in my view, serves to support the case for a radical change. As such it is a one-sided argument which points out the problems with the current system, of which there are many, but these are already widely acknowledged.

The critique, in my opinion, falls down on two fronts:

  • Firstly, it fails to acknowledge sufficiently the complexities of land-use planning – which the current system has been attempting to address. These complexities, which it is to be noted vary in degree across the country, are going to get greater with climate change, demographic change and changes in agriculture. No reform however radical, will alter the fact that the issues and context around land use planning are just complex.
  • Secondly, the critique fails to acknowledge fully that the planning system, which seeks to come to a planning balance on the merits, or otherwise, of a development in a particular location, actually works well in most situations. For example, around 85% of major applications are decided within 13 weeks or within an agreed time frame, and in a typical quarter in 2019, 15,400 decisions were made on applications for residential development and 75% were granted. Yet the issue for the Government and the issue which appears to be driving this shake up is the perceived time and cost associated with decision making related to house building.

Currently a professionally qualified Planning Officer would prepare a recommendation to approve a development, or not, based on their determination of where the planning balance stood. It is then for locally elected Council members to make a decision based on the advice of the planning officer.

In the White Paper the Government describe this process as ‘planning decisions’ that ‘are discretionary rather than rules-based’. The Government’s proposals are for a rules-based system where they say, ‘communities can have confidence those rules will be upheld’ and so can the developers. It is reasoned that this radical change will save time and cost.

Changes to Local Plans

The new system will have smaller Local Plans free of generic policies. For example, statutorily required Strategic Environmental Assessment and Sustainability Appraisal will be simplified and streamlined. Similarly, Environmental Impact Assessment requirements will be simplified and the process made more transparent. The ‘processes for environmental assessment and mitigation need to be quicker’ to ‘speed up decision-making and the delivery of development projects’.

No reasonable person would argue against simplification and streamlining. But the material issue here is the need to make these important statutes more meaningful within the plan making process. Not to dilute them to become a set of simple boxes to be ticked.

The Government are proposing that Local Plans should identify three types of land  in England: Growth areas suitable for substantial development; Renewal areas suitable for development; and areas that are Protected.

  • Growth Areas would have outline approval for development.  Areas of flood risk would be excluded as would other important constraints unless any risk can be fully mitigated.
  • Renewal Areas would be suitable for some development.
  • Protected Areas would justify more stringent development controls to ensure sustainability. This would include areas such as Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), Conservation Areas, Local Wildlife Sites, important areas of green space and critically areas of significant flood risk.

The White Paper paints a picture of a new planning system where we have moved ‘away from notices on lampposts to an interactive and accessible map-based online system – placing planning at the fingertips of people’.

Maybe it is only me, but I find a notice on a lamp post adjacent to a site in my neighbourhood very reassuring. Local democracy in action in my view! Some things are worth preserving even if they seem archaic to those planning this brave new world.

One potentially very interesting idea in the White Paper relates to a reformed Infrastructure Levy which developers will be required to pay to Local Authorities.  The idea is to link this levy to an Authority’s use of it as an income stream to borrow against to forward fund infrastructure. This could be used very effectively to fund flood defences and perhaps therefore one of the few redeeming features of the proposed overhaul.

New proposals – a Curate’s Egg

The need for changes in the land use planning system are well known and these are set out starkly in the National Audit Office report of 2019. However, the current approach seems rushed – involving just a 12 week consultation period – to replace a whole system that has been in place and evolved since 1947.

There are in my opinion some good ideas proposed and I can understand and regularly listen to statements that the system needs simplifying. But in reality, sustainable land use planning involves complexities which just cannot be over simplified in order to realise a housing target or a developer’s margin.

If, in haste, we gloss over these complexities, we could still end up with more households at risk of flooding, households with limited access to public transport and minimal accessible green space and socially isolated housing. A real danger here is that the quality of development, and housing in particular, is sacrificed in order to increase the pace of development (it remains questionable as to whether the pace of decision making itself is actually the issue).

Is poor quality housing the legacy we wish to pass on to future generations? The consultation responses are likely to be a treasure for those interested in the history and the future development of land use planning in England when published.

Want to know more?

The Government consultation closes on the 29 October 2020.

Read the full White Paper document here: Planning for the Future: White Paper August 2020. 

Email Steve Maslen for more information.

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