On solid ground?

By Sir Bob Neill | 18 August 2020

Characteristically, when introducing the Government’s recent White Paper, Planning for the Future, the Prime Minister couldn’t resist indulging in an extended metaphor. No longer, he said, would we tinker with the piecemeal extensions to the planning system that have been commissioned since its build in 1947, instead levelling the foundations of the Town and Country Planning Act and starting again from scratch.

The polarised response we’ve seen in the intervening two weeks to that bulldozer approach can be broadly categorised as one of either jubilation – from developers who, generally speaking, view the system as a hindrance and unnecessarily burdensome; or abject horror – from local authorities that believe the scrutiny they provide offers a necessary check on an industry whose mantra is still widely perceived as ‘stack high, build cheap, sell quick’.

Writing as a former local government and planning minister and the current parliamentary patron of the Royal Town Planning Institute, I think the proposals are in reality (and diplomatically) a mixed bag.

Let’s start with the good. There’s no denying the system can be slow, costly, complex and frustrating. This applies both to the local plan-making process and also to the handling of many individual planning applications. The Government is right to look at ways of simplifying it, in its words ‘cutting red tape but not standards’. This must, however, not exclude local government from the vital role it currently plays.

The White Paper’s emphasis on beauty and building at the right height, in the right style and, importantly, building homes that fit in with their surroundings is to be welcomed. So too is the Government’s determination to reset the argument around development, reframing it as something that can be positive and add value and character to a place rather than the foisting of unwanted eyesores onto communities, as is, regrettably, so often the case. The aim of digitalising the planning process, bringing it into the 21st century should also be applauded and could encourage greater engagement and increase transparency.

Of interest are proposals floated in a parallel consultation to temporarily lift the small sites threshold for affordable housing contributions for small and medium sized builders, extending it to schemes with 40 or 50 homes to support smaller developers hit by COVID-19. It will be councils who will have to police this concession and sift the genuine cases from those trying to game the system by developing larger sites in phasings of 40 or 50 properties.

Turning to the bad, the headline proposal to carve England into three categories of land – growth, renewal or protected – is far too simplistic. Zoning of this kind works well in larger countries where there’s more space and planners can look at a blank canvas, but at home, such broad strokes could remove the deliberately nuanced approach adopted by many local plans which more accurately reflect the reality on the ground.

Indeed, how will this blanket policy adequately protect, for example, areas of special residential character or mitigate the loss of economic activity through the uncontrolled transfer of commercial to residential use? The time and effort spent in enforcing these looser planning laws will also, I suspect, divert resources away from over-stretched planning departments, at least in the immediate term.

And then there’s the downright ugly. However it’s packaged, the White Paper represents a marked shift away from the sort of localism we’ve championed in recent years. Planning must be done by consent, but by effectively neutering the current locally-led system, replacing it with one in which the influence and decision-making ability of councils is significantly curtailed, we risk disenfranchising many, many people.

The latest changes to permitted development rights are a case in point and could, quite frankly, be disastrous – particularly in London where it will likely lead to cramped and substandard housing in inappropriate locations. I urge the Government to reconsider this urgently.

Most councils take their responsibility to build seriously. As the Local Government Association has pointed out, nine in 10 applications are approved by councils but more than a million homes given planning permission over the last decade are yet to be built. The blame for the dearth of housing in Britain does not, therefore, lie solely at the door of the planning system.

A number of sound points are raised in the White Paper, but what I believe is a genuine commitment to tackle this problem has been lost through a blinkered belief that the solution is to simply get as many spades in the ground as quickly as possible.

Instead, we need a holistic strategy that fully addresses not only planning, but also the procurement and construction strands of the housebuilding process. A good place to start would be to earnestly engage with local government and properly fund planning departments.

Sir Bob Neill MP is a former local government minister and is chair of the Commons Justice Committee

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