In Opinion

Director, Bob Robison sets out his thoughts on the much-hyped Planning White Paper.

“I must confess that having seen the press briefing last weekend I was expecting to find this a depressing read and the introductory pieces from the comedy double act of Johnson and Jenrick do nothing to dispel that fear.

However, once one gets past those initial pages, it is clear that the advisory team involved in its preparation  Bridget Rosewell, Miles Gibson, Sir Stuart Lipton, Nicholas Boys Smith, and Christopher Katkowski QC. have been allowed to undertake a comprehensive review which goes well beyond the ‘end of planning permission’ headlines prefaced in the media to consider every aspect of the planning system and the practicalities of its delivery.

It is however very much a discussion document with preferences and alternative – perhaps less radical – alternative options for discussion. Some of the proposals also need a lot more detailed thought as is acknowledged.

The White Papers starting point is the acknowledgement that for those outside and indeed some of those inside the system, the approach to Town Planning in Britain has evolved into an increasingly complex and opaque system requiring submission of numerous reports a number of which seem to have little value to the final outcome. Furthermore, the Development Plan system is too cumbersome and unwieldy and even then, decisions are perceived to be made on an ad hoc basis often resulting in developments of poor quality with much of the expected and necessary infrastructure not secured.

Running to around 60 pages this note cannot do more that capture and comment on the key proposals of the White paper but it is refreshing that the White Paper sees a continuing and enhanced role for the planning profession and acknowledges the need for a properly resourced and skilled service even down to the ‘Cinderella’ role of Enforcement.

Image: Timekeepers Square, Salford – A DPP scheme featured in the White Paper

So, to the key measures; First off, the White Paper proposes a more focussed and responsive Local Plan system in many respects reverting back to the 1948 Town Map principles of areas being identified for Growth, Renewal or Retention supported by locally determined design codes. This would grant ‘in principle’ consent for development which accords with the zoning and codes although detailed planning/reserved matters consent would still be required albeit this is seen as being more of a fast track process if development accords with the plan and codes with a higher proportion of delegated decisions. One concern given the stated aim to secure many more houses is the suggestion that the lid is firmly closed on Green Belt review. Conservation areas are also included in Retention when in many cases sensitive Renewal should be more the order of the day.

Whilst the Local Plans would be locally determined, they would need to respond to Nationally set Housing targets and nationally set principle development management policies in an expanded NPPF. As such, whilst local communities are encouraged to have a say in where development should take place and what it should look like, there would be limited or no scope to question the principle of development.

In drawing up the Local Plans, the only ‘test’ would be whether or not its proposals are sustainable and the Govt is seeking to impose a 30 month timescale for preparation and adoption. There is also an expectation that local residents should become actively involved in the process and this is to be encouraged by interactive online methods of consultation.

For me the two unanswered questions on this are to what extent local residents will wish to get involved when they perhaps still have limited input on the substantive issues. Secondly, devolving the development of design codes to local decision making runs the real risk of identikit Poundbury’s around the UK unless properly managed and led and this really does reinforce the need to get engagement from residents for whom the default design option is not semi-detached suburban. This avoidance of bland design should also be assisted by a National Design Code and Revised Manual for Streets to be published later in 2020 which are to guide the local codes

Turning now to the securing of consents for development, whilst contrary to the line led in some parts of the media, you will not be in a position to press ahead with development without some form of Planning Approval, the approach is certainly geared toward proposals which are in the appropriate zone and in accordance with the design parameters being essentially fact tracked through the system with talk of a possible deemed consent if not determined within the statutory period. The new White Paper also places significant emphasis on climate change measures and the targeting of zero carbon properties as well as net gains in biodiversity although again more detail is promised on this.

Conversely, there is no suggestion that applications cannot be submitted for uses which depart from the ‘zoning’ and design codes albeit this is likely to be deemed higher risk in the context of a more prescriptive system.

The third key issue is funding and provision of infrastructure and affordable homes and The White Paper proposes removal of the complex S106 mechanism and separate discretionary CIL and their replacement with a mandatory Consolidated Infrastructure Levy, nationally set and charged on all developments above  a certain threshold. This would be payable at the end of a development but LA’s would be able to raise finance for infrastructure against its future payment. Unlike at present, affordable housing would also be secured via this mechanism

Whilst this would introduce certainty, I think there is a need to be aware that site acquisition costs could result in claims that the levy would make schemes unviable not least with the enhance design expectations and energy standards. As such, a better option – hinted at in the White Paper may be land value capture from the landowner as the party perhaps best placed to maximise the return out of any development. There would however need to be caution that this may in practice cut off the supply of land for development. I feel this needs more thought.

Finally, as noted earlier the White Paper also gives thought to the mechanisms of delivery of the system with frequent discussion about Prop Tech and some of these ideas are exciting but may need upskilling on the part of many planners. No discussion of the funding for this though. It may also tend to alienate some of the more traditional and elderly participants in the planning system – perhaps the intention.

So, as I said at the outset, the White Paper is a better set of proposals than I feared but there is plenty as yet to be resolved.”

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Michelle Davies