Planning reform must address the needs of local communities
Steven Boxall, Regeneration X
Later this year the Government will be publishing its response to its Planning White Paper consultation, and then introduce its Planning Bill.
So, this may be a good time to put forward a few thoughts.
Earlier, in 2020, I said that the Government’s consultation document on Freeports was the worst White Paper I have ever seen; well the ‘Planning For The Future’ White Paper offers strong competition for this award, with the two of them running neck-and-neck.
In what is more appropriate for a conversation between 6 year olds The White Paper asks: “What three words do you associate most with the planning system in England?” Well I will join in this game by saying that my three words are: Flexible; Democratic; Balanced.
The White Paper says ‘Thanks to our planning system, we have nowhere near enough homes in the right place’. Factually this is incorrect; the fault is government policies over the last 40 years not letting local councils build council homes, and not resourcing local councils to build council homes. Not having enough homes is not the fault of planning. Since local councils retreated from the direct building of homes the private sector has not filled this gap: with some variation due to economic recessions the output per year of the private sector hasn’t materially changed since the 1970s. Many homes for which planning has been granted are not getting built – this cannot be and isn’t the fault of planning. So, the whole (or main) premise on which this White Paper is based is at best a mistake and at worse a lie.
The White Paper calls for a planning system that is simple, clearer and quick to navigate. But something as vital as planning cannot be done quickly, in a hurry. It goes on to claim that planning decisions are discretionary rather than rules based. But complex issues (and Planning is a complex issue) can only, to a certain extent, work within a set of rules. If the rules are too simple the results will be unfair and soon outdated if they are strictly implemented. Simple rules dealing with complex issues will require discretion and judgement if we are not to have decisions which are seen to be unfair. Discretion is required to react to changes in an ever changing world that is difficult to predict in advance. Discretion requires judgements. Planning is complex because the issues it tackles and addresses are complex, trying to integrate many issues and interests (some conflicting), many of which are contradictory, or benefit one person or groups of people to the detriment of others. Planning is about balancing these competing interests and to do so in a way that is fair. To be seen as fair planning must be democratic and cannot help being in some ways political.
The government says it wants a planning system which actively encourages ‘useful development’. But useful to who? Is it to the developer that makes an off-shore, tax dodging entity money by building homes as investments for absent overseas buyers, but provides no homes for normal people to live in? Is that what the government determines as ‘useful’? This may be useful to rentiers but not to most people.
The homes, gardens, and neighbourhoods of most people are ‘useful’ in many ways: in providing a place to live and to be safe in; providing wildlife habitats and environmental diversity; supporting mental and physical health; providing flood protection and mitigation; providing climate change mitigation. But homes and neighbourhoods should not be thought useful solely as a source of profit for housing developers and investors, especially those which are off-shore and can take their investments away as easily as it arrived. Homes should not be funded or financed by foot loose, easily mobile, money.
There is a fundamental question which is not asked nor addressed in the White Paper- ‘For who is the Planning System there for and to benefit: investors or citizens and communities?’ Too often communities feel that their interests and needs are not important but that those of the investors are paramount; and this must change.
The White Paper claims that the current planning system has lost public trust. If this is true the reason is that most local planning authorities and developers do not engage with communities in accordance with The Gunning Principles, and they confuse Consultation and Engagement. Sometimes this is due to lack of willingness and sometimes it is because of lack of resources to plan for and undertake meaningful engagement. Proper engagement is never quick, nor cheap and must not be seen as a one-off event – it must be continuous: see the Bauforum movement in Hamburg (https://www.hamburg.de/bauforum-en/) .
In my experience the public have lost trust in the planning process because they see it as invariably favouring, and taking the side of, developers. The planning process is meant to consider competing interests and use democratic processes to make decisions which balance, and mediate, these interests, and for trust to be maintained or returned this must become more common than it currently is.
You only have to look at the posts on the ‘Listen to Locals’ blog about what is happening to the planning application of The Stag Brewery Site to see how locals believe that the system is stacked against them and in favour of property developers, and that ordinary people don’t get a fair hearing yet alone being treated as co-producers of the urban environment – an environment we all have to share. If sections of our communities feel that the planning process and system ignores them there is the real risk that they will make their voices heard in ways which are outside of any legal and administrative system.
The White Paper says that the process for negotiating contributions to affordable housing and infrastructure is complex, protracted and unclear. Perhaps government needs to take a step back and consider why developers are being asked to contribute to these things: it is because government moved away from funding and supplying them. If the government taxed adequately and provided the necessary infrastructure, including affordable housing, there would be no need for developer contributions. Allowing developers to negotiate on viability grounds makes the situation worse: this essentially allows developers to say ‘I’ve ignored your policies in order to out-bid others for the site, so I want to opt out of your polices’. This must be stopped.
The planning system is ‘unpredictable’ because developers try to get away with not following policy and their success of doing so too often leads to this unpredictability. Developers arguing about ‘viability’, and allowing them to do so, causes this aspect of unpredictability.
Also, contrary to government claims, the current planning system does allow for flexibility. It allows a developer to make a case for something which may not have been envisaged within the adopted policy. For example, there was no policy in the local plan for anything like The Eden Project, because it was so innovative that it would not have been foreseen by the planners. The current Planning System allowed the promoters of The Eden Project to make their case and present an argument for why it should be allowed and was subsequently given planning consent. The involvement of the Planning Committee and its elected members (and finally the full Council) provided democratic legitimacy for allowing something for which there was no policy because it could not have been foreseen. All of this flexibility must not be confused with ‘uncertainty’ (or ‘unpredictability’ as the government claims) and this flexibility must not be thrown out with the bathwater in a quest for ‘certainty’. Additional, if the government wants certainty perhaps this needs to flow both ways with the developer having to provide a Performance Bond guaranteeing that they will actually build out what they get planning permission for.
It is also shocking how few references this White Paper contains, and that most of the few there are are from lobbyists and special interest groups rather than academics and academic research which is based on evidence and examination of evidence. We are getting policy by lobbyists rather than from careful and evidence based thought.
It is interesting that the White Paper recognises that the problems which it identifies are decades long problems, but it doesn’t mention that these decades coincide exactly with the introduction of neoliberal economics and politics to the UK. Reforming the Planning System whilst continuing to make it work within the philosophy and constraints of neoliberal economics and politics will return the same results as the White Paper complains of. The Planning System isn’t the problem but neoliberal economics is.
It must be understood that the planning system is only one aspect of the system which gets homes (or other developments, including infrastructure) built. Planning is a system within a system of systems. Therefore it is a mistake, and very naive, to believe that making changes to the Planning System will, on its own, lead to more homes being built, yet alone the sort of homes required where they are needed.
I am very concerned that the proposed categorisations ignore people and communities who already live in these places, with ‘urban regeneration sites’ being a euphemism for housing estates, town centres or suburbs. Too frequently we have ‘Regeneration’ schemes which ignore the existing local communities with the only thing considered being the future value of where they live and work and not them as humans. The new planning regime must not allow this to be continued.
‘Gentle densification and infill of residential areas’ are included in one of the categories where development can make place. What, exactly, is the definition of ‘gentle densification’? It is exactly this sort of thing which makes people think that the aim of the new regime is to benefit developers and investors, and not communities.
Similarly, ‘local authorities could continue to consider the case for resisting inappropriate development of residential gardens’, seems like weasel words – ‘consider’, ‘ resisting’, ‘inappropriate’ – all words designed for driving a coach and horse through and to engender mistrust.
In my view, areas that are ‘Protected’ must also include historic buildings, structures, gardens and landscapes, both as a group or individually. And this must not be restricted to buildings, structures, gardens, or landscapes which are ‘Listed’. Each Local Planning Authority must be able to designate, using its own criteria above and beyond any national listing system, which historic assets are to be protected. Indeed, historic assets (and people) must form the core around which any development and regeneration plans must focus.
So, in short, I don’t think much of the Planning White Paper.
If you want much more detail see my blog post - https://stevenboxall.wordpress.com/2020/10/23/response-to-planning-white-paper-planning-for-the-future/
Urban Regeneration Producer