The best laid plans and all that...
A major planning overhaul in England will allow ‘automatic’ planning permission for new homes, hospitals, schools, shops and offices – and force local authorities to allocate land for developments that will then not have to go through the full planning process. “Permission in principle” will apply to areas for “growth” and for “renewal” – new “protection” status will be conferred to green belt, where most new building will be automatically banned.
No-one would argue that we need a system in place to regulate development and discourage or prevent inappropriate or undesirable development – it’s worked OK for a great many years as far as I can see, and the existing planning system is a system of much maturity that has duties and responsibilities developed over decades.
There’s a lot of prescription around planning matters, and there needs to be if we are to achieve consistency across the regions whilst at the same time ensuring that planning decisions are robust and have taken into account all the regional, economic, employment and housing need factors that are reflected in the local plan, and that have a lot of bearing on how decisions are determined.
Part of this includes a robust view of risk, particularly the risk of flooding, and we’ve lots of expert practitioners in the planning system and as Lead Local Flood Authorities (LLFAs). In my time I’ve met with some pretty stubborn planners and statutory stakeholders, but to be honest they’ve generally been stubborn with good reason. If I were one of them I wouldn’t want to go home at night wondering if a decision I’ve taken might put the public at risk.
They say that the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is to be revised to promote “Good Design and Placemaking” and define what is expected from developers and planners, but one fervently hopes that not having to go through “the full planning process” does not in itself suggest that, for instance, flood risk matters will be skipped over or relegated to a simple box-tick procedure. I expect that for all sites there will still be a requirement for a Flood Risk Assessment (FRA) and detailed drainage details to be submitted at planning stage for rigorous examination by the planners, or maybe I’m being naïve in thinking that a substantially reduced timescale for major development applications will allow the planners sufficient time to satisfy themselves on every count that the development will be safe.
On the other hand, we’re all aware of the pressing need for much new housing, and we’ve consistently failed as a country to achieve previous targets for housebuilding.
As this goes to consultation, battle lines are already being drawn up – on one side is the government, their view succinctly summarised by the housing minister Robert Jenrick, who said:
“Local building plans were supposed to help councils and their residents deliver more homes in their area. Yet they take on average seven years to agree in the form of lengthy and absurdly complex documents and accompanying policies understandable only to the lawyers who feast upon every word"
In the opposing corner are combatants like the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), the Local Government Association and the housing and homelessness charity Shelter, who say things like:
“the move would lead to poor-quality new houses being built in areas without adequate public services and would lessen democratic accountability”
“deregulation would not deliver new homes the government should urgently reconsider” and “the government saw fit to extend Permitted Development regulations, contrary to its own experts and research, which have made clear the damaging consequences. The government has missed a huge opportunity to make changes to the planning system for the better”.
We all look forward to the ensuing dog fight on this one.
The government says that there will be:
“no lowering of standards” and
“we will review our policy for building in areas at flood risk – we will seek to ensure that communities across the country know that future development will be safe from floods. We will assess whether current protections in the NPPF are enough and consider options for reform”.
Then somewhere in the middle are the organisations (need I say it: developers) who might seize upon this all as a great commercial opportunity
“We strongly support the reform of our historic planning system, to bring it up to speed and ensure it is fit for purpose for the modern-day. In particular, we welcome initiatives to make it more transparent, speed up planning where appropriate and has a presumption towards development rather than against”.
But clouds appear over the horizon already, and there’s mounting opposition to the government’s plans even now – some areas will benefit more than others with areas such as Oxford, Epsom and Ewell, Sevenoaks and the Isle of Wight all seeing a surge in house building, while for Salford, Newcastle and Liverpool it could be the opposite. Indeed, Conservative MP Sir Bernard Jenkin will not support the government’s new plans – commenting that imposing more homes on England's green spaces amounted to a “circle of doom for rural areas in the Home Counties”.
Interestingly, it emerges that the need for new housing across the country will be determined by “a new formula for recalculating where new development is needed based on an algorithm” – it has been suggested that this might be the 'cousin of the methodology which led to this summer's exams results chaos’.
It seems to me that the government has but a single purpose in driving forward change, (target hitting) and that time will tell if the outcomes will benefit us all or drag us down a path towards the very sort of inappropriate development that the planning system was set up in the first place to discourage.
It'll be interesting to see how this pans out, and indeed if it persuades the Scottish and Welsh governments to look at their planning systems, but for me it seems that it’s all far from being a risk-averse piece of policy making.
The consultation, which closes on the 29 October 2020 can be found here.