LGSS Law

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Working with Planning Reform

The Dentons Planning Law Blog looks at the issues arising out of the Government's proposals for planning reform, including in relation to zoning and affordable housing.

The Government has published its long awaited White Paper Planning for the Future. The much talked about, wide and sweeping reforms to the planning system are here, at least in proposals with consultation on some measures to follow and primary and secondary legislation required for others. While we should embrace reform, what are the issues? In a two-part series we outline some points that will need to be considered in the consultation exercise.

Zoning

The shift towards zoning and simpler planning system is sensible, particularly if it is part of making Local Plan examinations workable. However, the proposal that all land in the country can be divided into three zones is heroically simple. Zoning can work well but needs both zones and overlays. It has to allow for nuance and variety. Look at planning systems that incorporate zoning, such as in Australia, Germany and New York, and it is clear that zoning is more wide-ranging and complex than the present outline suggests. Zoning can work well but will need both additional zones and overlays, such as areas of historic character or environmental sensitivity.

Affordable Housing

Despite protestations to the contrary, the White Paper seems like a step towards the slow death of affordable housing being delivered by the planning system. Affordable housing will instead end up being a purchased good, financed in part by monies raised from development. This may make the system more efficient – since grant funding rather than developer-delivery was previously the norm. How much of the affordable burden is expected to fall on land value, how early and how thoroughly that is assessed for overall viability will be critical. 

There is then a wider issue about social licence which affects the way that development is popularly viewed. Recent changes to permitted development rights have exempted that type of development from providing affordable housing. The separate consultation paper suggests raising the threshold at which affordable housing should be provided to between 40-50 houses, leading to less affordable housing. We are moving away from the justification for affordable housing on the basis that it leads to mixed and balanced communities. If we want to keep that as an aspiration then the proposed reform will need to be changed.

Innovation and “planning by numbers”

Creating beauty in development and through place making should be welcomed. The Paper proposes that design guidance and codes will be created through “genuine community involvement.” The theory is good but may prove difficult in practice. A weakness of the current system is that planning controls put in place to maintain quality are sometimes not properly tested for viability or are diluted through variations to conditions, reliance on viability arguments, etc. There is often a trade-off in practice between taking the time to put in place design codes/insist on quality at reserved matters stage and starting on site/delivering homes.  

The Paper favours a rule based system over one that uses discretion and planning judgment. This has the potential to undermine the innovation, creativity and placemaking the planning system is presently able to deliver when there is genuine collaboration and partnering between local authorities and developers. The proposals risk turning planning into a “planning by numbers” exercise.

Community engagement

The Paper emphasises the need to give the public “a greater say over what gets built in your community” and wanting to enable them to “trust the planning system again.” It promises a move towards a ‘one shot’ approach – front-loading public participation to the plan-making stage. The suggestion is that embracing technology and moving towards a data-driven, digitised, system will improve accessibility and unlock planning so that it is more inclusive. That will undoubtedly help, but will it be enough to prevent a democratic deficit? At present, most engagement takes place at the application stage. Bringing that forward requires a real culture shift as much as it does a technological shift. There is also an inherent tension between full and meaningful consultation and a hard, statutory, deadline for putting plans in place – is 30 months sensible and realistic?

Further comments in the changes to planning contributions and CIL will follow.

This article first appeared on the Dentons Planning Law Blog. With thanks to Amy Carter for her assistance with this blog.

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