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Planning for the future or back to the future?

The planning white paper (Planning for the Future) proposes significant reform to the English planning system.


There has rarely been a moment over the past 20 years when the planning system wasn’t going through a process of significant change. It has become the norm for it to be criticised on all sides, from the professionals trying to interpret and explain it, to the local authorities trying to apply and implement it, and to the general public who quite understandably do not have the time to get to grips with it.


The Covid-19 pandemic has put an even sharper focus on its many claimed pitfalls. The desire for a speedy return to economic prosperity by politicians, institutions, business owners, homeowners and anybody with a retirement plan, has put an immense amount of pressure on the need to get this planning reform right. Can this ever be achieved when ‘the system’ must mediate between so many competing demands, agendas and opinions? Can such an overhaul ever create the dramatic step change in speed of delivery needed to justify rocking the boat at such an economically sensitive moment.


The Government states that they are “Proposing a new system which is easier for the public to access, transforms the way communities are shaped and builds the homes this country needs. The changes will mean more good quality, attractive and affordable homes can be built faster – and more young families can have the key to their own home.”


Is this too much of a monumental task for a highly politicised system strangled by red tape to deliver? A brief history of recent reforms demonstrates the challenge that lies ahead. These reforms and initiatives were in part brought about as a result of the Barker Review of Housing Supply back in 2004 which commented that some of the requirements of the planning system were unnecessary and delaying the delivery of sustainable and affordable housing. And here we are again, this time it is Boris emerging from his Covid bunker shouting Build! Build! Build!


The planning white paper does suggest many well-intentioned reforms, all of which were kicked into the long grass of 2021, along with plans to further reform and amalgamate local authorities into some form of Regional Assembly structure…wait a minute, was that another pang of deja vu!


The waters were muddied further by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) who announced last month that it would backtrack on proposals to revise its method for determining local housing need following concerns that it would set unreasonably high targets for housebuilding across south-east England.


Instead, it said it would keep the current methodology, using the 2014-based household projections, but would add a new “cities and urban centres uplift” of 35 per cent for England’s 20 biggest urban areas. There is criticism that these largely Labour-controlled towns and cities, where the revised policy seeks to prioritise housebuilding, are affected by areas of constraint (such as Green Belt) and have already failed to meet their current housing needs. Furthermore, the current pandemic has instead increased demand for houses with private open space and immediate access to the countryside.


The secretary of state Robert Jenrick as a result is accused by the industry of taking a highly regressive backwards step by reverting to previous 2017 figures as the basis for housing need projections, which are widely criticised as being based on outdated 2014 household projections skewed by a demographic trend period impacted by the last financial crisis in 2009-2014.


It’s not clear if all (or any) of the changes in the white paper will eventually be implemented. Even if they are, it will take time for any new system to come into force. The government wants to see new local plans in place by the end of this parliament, which is in less than four years’ time. Therefore, if you’re promoting land to local plans, neighbourhood plans or considering taking proposals forward, it is vital to keep that going.


Are other reforms proposed? The White Paper focuses on local plans, planning applications and proposed changes to planning obligations but further reforms are likely to be consulted on in the autumn. This will be based on the governments ‘Project Speed’ initiative and will be focused on streamlining the planning process for big infrastructure projects.


Whilst the changes proposed by the white paper are encouraging, there doesn’t appear to be much consensus that they will come into effect in anything like the same recognisable form and that Council’s will continue to fail to maintain relevant, up to date Local Plans or deliver sufficient housing to meet their identified needs, however that is determined.


I will end with a quote from Boris himself:


“As we approach the second decade of the 21st century that potential is being artificially constrained by a relic from the middle of the 20th – our outdated and ineffective planning system. Designed and built in 1947 it has, like any building of that age, been patched up here and there over the decades. Extensions have been added on, knocked down and rebuilt according to the whims of whoever’s name is on the deeds at the time. Eight years ago, a new landlord stripped most of the asbestos from the roof. But make-do-and-mend can only last for so long and, in 2020, it is no longer fit for human habitation.”


Isn’t there an argument that what we need now is stability in the planning system in order to create confidence for future investment decisions. At the end of the day isn’t that what it’s all really about?


For further information on this and to discuss any related planning matters please contact our Head of Planning Dan Hewett