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Planning for the Future: Once in a lifetime?

Planning for the Future is a tautology, right? What else can you plan for?

Put another way though, the future of planning is very much what the Government’s White Paper issued on 6 August addresses, promising a once-in-a-generation change but, as it talks about the biggest change since the system was created in 1947, it feels more ‘once-in-a-lifetime’. Or is it?

The paper sets out five aims:

  1. To streamline the system and make it more democratic (the same challenge set every time planning reform has been promised)
  2. A radical digital-first approach (to be warmly welcomed but some of it does exist already)
  3. A new focus on design and sustainability (with the emphasis very much on design)
  4. A new approach to infrastructure delivery
  5. More land for homes and the development we need, and renewal of town centres

There are 24 proposals described under three ‘pillars’ – on “development”, “beautiful and sustainable places”, and “infrastructure and connected places”.

Breaking these down, we have six proposals on the streamlining of the plan making process, which is really at the heart of the changes. Not a zonal planning system as such, but a categorisation of how we plan between “growth” (where ‘automatic’ planning permission will be granted on plan adoption with later approval of details through either a refreshed ‘reserved matters’, LDOs or DCOs, the latter hinting at their extension to residential); “renewal” (where there will be a presumption in favour of development but a regulated ‘pattern book’ approach to approval using existing tools); and “protection” (where planning permission would be required as at present, but with it being the exception in areas of Green Belt, landscape quality, wildlife and open countryside).

The plan making process will be shortened to 30 months, but with more public involvement, potential changes to the examination process, a new “sustainable development” test, the survival of Neighbourhood Plans but the demise of the Duty to Co-operate, with only vague hints at how to plan strategically. A new Standard Method for housing requirements will be nationally determined and binding, but there will be stronger measures to ensure build out of permissions. All will be digitally enhanced.

On design, we will get a new national body (having abolished CABE), better local leadership with ‘Chief Placemakers’ supporting locally-generated design guidance and coding. Homes England will be charged with delivering “beautiful places”, and we see for the first time what a “fast-track for beauty” looks like based around those local design codes.

The paper is lighter on the environment than we might expect facing into a climate emergency, but there are proposals on streamlining the assessment of environmental effects, securing environmental benefits, evolving heritage guidance and the move towards zero carbon.

On infrastructure, CIL and S106 obligations are swept away in favour of a single Infrastructure Levy, which will also deliver affordable housing, capture what is currently being lost from permitted development, and give local authorities greater freedom on how they spend it.

Refreshingly, the White Paper recognises the need for a Resource and Skills Strategy which will be vital to deliver such sweeping change.

Finally, an accompanying consultation paper on changes to the current system covers the transitional arrangements on Standard Method for housing, introduction of First Homes (what began life as Starter Homes) and offers a 30% discount for 25% of affordable provision, help for SME builders, and an extension of the Permission in Principle powers.

The White Paper talks of moving away from a discretionary system towards a rules-based approach, but that also means locking in those rules perhaps once every five years, when plans are reviewed, whereas experience shows that community engagement currently crystallises around the detailed proposals. How to engage people earlier on design coding for something they can’t yet envisage will be a challenge.

The proposals also feel like a centralisation of power, with national development management policies likely to mean an expanded NPPF and PPG, with less discretion locally. That may prove to be a good thing with less duplication of effort, but it will feel to local authorities and communities like choice being taken away and a loss of distinctiveness.

There is also an alarming lack of any real recognition of the economy. All the hype and the talk is of housing, and that will dominate our conversation in the days and weeks to come, but in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, it does feel like the two ‘pillars’ that as a society have come up to match housing as a crisis to be addressed, are economic recovery and the climate emergency.

There is good in the White Paper and much of the rhetoric is valid, but the practical implications of a demolish-and-rebuild of the planning system right now must be balanced by asking: couldn’t we do much of this within the existing system and get on with “build, build, build” if that is the aim?

Watch this space for further in-depth commentary on specific aspects of the reforms.

6 August 2020

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