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The White Paper on planning reform: Will the proposals increase housebuilding and improve affordability in England?

In this blog a group of chartered planners in academic practice reflect on the White Paper on planning reform and the aim of increasing housebuilding and affordability

The Prime Minister wants to build more new homes of all tenures, an admirable objective which we share. However, proposals to ‘tear down’ the current planning system to achieve this is something we do not share. The planning system needs reform but starting again from scratch in the radical way proposed will not work and is likely to put at risk maintaining the current output of new homes let alone securing more.

This blog draws on experiences from the principles and practice of different planning systems in the UK and internationally, as well as the research from the contributing authors and from their colleagues.

An ‘evidence lite’ White Paper?

Our collective research and policy/practice experience highlights our central concern about the thinness of evidence in the White Paper. This leads us to conclude that certain proposals in the White Paper could undermine the purpose and practice of planning. This is reflected in its reliance on unrepresentative examples and inadequate understanding of how planning operates outside England. In particular, it seems to want to abandon the role of planning as a means of securing important public purposes and as a result, in the housing context, marginalises the planning system to being solely a means of delivering more housing.

Of course securing more decent and affordable housing is important to us all and what good planning does is to help create and deliver the places and spaces where we can all flourish ‘at home at work and at play’. As it stands, the White Paper would be highly likely to reduce chances for members of the public to shape the future of places that they live, work and socialise.

This lack of recognition and safeguarding of the wider role of the planning system will have perverse consequences. The result is that the proposals that are being put forward will in fact increase the risks that the homes we need will not be delivered.

Our key concerns

We accept the need for further reform. Local plans take far too long to prepare and update and too many are thus out of date as the basis for development management decisions and do not always address requirements. Casework on planning applications can be drawn out, creating uncertainty and adding to developers’ costs and risks. Evidence shows this does not have to be the case. The benefits of our discretionary planning system combining clarity on policy with decisions that take account of the specifics of sites and of the complexities of context should not be underestimated, especially in terms of the wider impact of planning on investment in critical infrastructure (schools, roads, public transport) and its contributions to tackling climate change, promoting bio diversity and healthy living.

Figure 1: Authors’ analysis of the proposed reforms

 

The research behind our key concerns

1. The planning system doesn’t constrain development: Claims in the White Paper that the planning system leads to less development are unsubstantiated. Evidence shows that more homes have been consented for development than are delivered. We agree reform is needed to address issues such as diversity of housing supply (e.g. SME builders, more affordable and social housing is needed for instance) but we argue that substantive constraints and weaknesses largely fall in other areas, notably in development finance, infrastructure provision and legal delays (see Whitehead, 2017 and The Letwin Review).

2. The planning system needs to be balanced with local discretion: The argument for ‘zoning’ (e.g. a rights or rules-based planning system) ignores the need for a planning system to secure a balance of certainty and discretion. International evidence suggests that those with rights based system look to achieve greater discretion and that those with discretionary systems argue for strong policy frameworks. Zoning can work in rules based legal system but is more problematic in common law legal systems. The evidence is that zoning systems and discretionary systems tend to converge on a mixture of policy/strategy and case-by-case judgement. Even in a zoning system there will always be the need for variations and mechanisms to scrutinise and sign these off, and to deal with the complexities of places and schemes that do not conform to the codes. Zoning could reduce risk or uncertainty for developers but may also results in other costs (see RTPI, Gallent, 2020 and Shulze Bäing and Webb, 2020).

3. The planning system has wider national and international obligations than simply serving applicant/investors at point of service: It needs to capture, express and deliver on strategic policy, not only on housing, but also industry, employment, economy and infrastructure, carbon and climate resilience, nature and environmental protection. Improvements to the existing system are needed to align and better balance these. Most notably, if the system is to integrate the unequal economic and social geography of England better, we also need clear strategic spatial plans bridging from national policy to local plans (further reading: Morphet, 2017, 2018).

4. Planning, design and placemaking: Design codes only generally work for a single controlling landowner conveyancing plots over a long time scale; we also need a system of design guides for more complex circumstances to lever more quality and coherent placemaking from diverse developers and designers. They provide coherence, co-ordination and certainly – and often underpin public confidence in outputs and outcomes either via Urban Codes (layout), or Architectural Codes (building design). These can be nurtured through policies in plans (not zoning type ordinances) and importantly better integrate design and development management with building control regimes. This is critical because well designed new development must also be functional and meet space, internal layout and safety standards. Hence these must be specified in any new rules based system of ordinances (as is the case in many countries with these approaches to planning) if such standards are to be safeguarded. However, International evidence also suggests that rules based approaches requiring compliance with fixed standards can actually increase costs, reduce flexibility, and slow development.

5. The existing system of developer contributions works well at a localised level: It raised £7bn for infrastructure and affordable housing in 2018-19. The system can be improved by reducing negotiating uncertainties and removing the many exemptions. However the proposed Infrastructure Levy that taxes Gross Development Value of completed projects will be difficult to introduce, will generate different viability problems, undermine the levelling up agenda, and in particular break the contractual link between developer contributions and the infrastructure they actually need. Furthermore the introduction of value and site size thresholds will reduce the affordable housing funded via the levy, which is a crucial housing (and social) contribution (read more in this blog or Crook and Whitehead, 2019 and Lord et al, 2020).

6. The White Paper makes big claims for the use of data: However, this will come with major transaction costs of data mining and data integration as well as the compliance of different data access requirements and regulations (and government no longer collects much important data). We need to move towards the digital age to complement existing forms of data and participation instruments, rather than replace them. Existing research on the use of technology in managing urban processes shows that it puts power in hands of an elite and disempowers ordinary citizens and abandons argument and persuasion as the means by which we nurture and enhance the development we need. The White Paper implies that coding and automation are to go hand in and for many types of development, the negotiative element of development managements will be removed and replaced by a compliance checking against a series of design codes, stripping out professional judgement and political oversight

 

As a group of chartered planners we have come together to pool our own research to offer a critical commentary of the White Paper. We will be responding directly to the consultation paper but are also keen to contribute to the wider debates on the proposed reform. Hence this contribution for the CaCHE community.

As well as being in academic practice we have also served in public policy capacities, including as chief executives and chief officers of local authorities, as chairs or directors of planning, regeneration and housing companies and as advisers to government and parliamentary bodies.

Professor Mark Baker, MRTPI, University of Manchester; Professor Tony Crook FRTPI, The University of Sheffield; Professor Nick Gallent FRTPI, UCL; Hon Professor Vincent Goodstadt MRTPI (and former RTPI President), The University of Manchester; Professor John Henneberry, FRTPI, The University of Sheffield; Hon Professor Janice Morphet, FRTPI, UCL; Hon Professor Kevin Murray FRTPI (and former RTPI President), The University of Glasgow; Professor Gavin Parker, FRTPI, University of Reading; Professor Malcom Tait, MRTPI, The University of Sheffield; Professor Christine Whitehead, HonRTPI, LSE; and Professor Cecilia Wong, FRTPI, The University of Manchester

Views expressed by authors may not represent the views of CaCHE.

 
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Date: October 22, 2020 9:30 am

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