The government’s ambitious new White Paper, ‘Planning for the Future’. promises the biggest shake-up in the planning system since 1948, with a ‘fast track for beauty’. We urgently need to build more genuinely affordable homes, especially in the South East – but this White Paper won’t achieve that. It misunderstands the reasons why houses aren’t being built, and threatens to undermine the democratic principles that have underpinned our planning system.
Currently, the planning system is made up of two parts: the Local Plan, and ‘development control’. Local plans are by far the most important part, but the process for producing these is slow, expensive and cumbersome. In Sussex, each of the district councils, and Brighton & Hove City Council, produce a local plan for their area. These plans are also constrained by national government planning policies.
The plans identify land that’s suitable for different types of development, as well as protected land where development won’t normally be permitted. They also include a set of local policies that can include design standards, housing density, height restrictions, provision of affordable housing, and environmental requirements. There is a lengthy public consultation process and thousands of pages of supporting evidence that have to be produced, culminating in an ‘examination in public’ conducted by a government inspector, who has to declare the plan ‘sound’ before the council can adopt it. All this takes several years.
The council then uses its local plan to judge whether planning applications can be approved – if an application conforms with the plan, it will be recommended for approval, regardless of how many objections have been made. And while local plans are not ‘set in stone’, if planning committees refuse an application that complies with its own plan, they risk losing the subsequent appeal, and having to pay tens of thousands of pounds in costs. So as a rule, planning committees don’t turn down applications that conform with their local plan policies, regardless of the number of objections.
That’s how the system works now. So what’s new in the new White Paper?
The intention of the White Paper is to place more emphasis on making a local plan, and less on individual applications. In some ways, this makes the system clearer and more honest. Local people think that if they object to a planning application it will be more likely to be turned down – but that’s never been the case: it’s compliance with the Local Plan that counts. There will be stricter targets for the numbers of new homes to be built in each council area, with more severe penalties for not achieving these targets. But the requirement for developers to provide social and ‘affordable’ housing will end, to be replaced with a financial contribution which can be provided ‘in kind’ through social and affordable housing as part of the scheme. Councils will also have to give back planning fees where they lose planning appeals, making them even less likely to turn down planning applications.
The White Paper proposes that local plans will divide the plan area into three ‘zones’: ‘Growth’, ‘Renewal’ and ‘Protected’. In Growth Zones, any application that conforms with the Local Plan will automatically be approved. In Renewal Zones, some types of development will be automatically approved. In Protected Zones, all applications will need to be approved in much the same way as they are now. The automatic designation of green belt, national parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) as ‘protected’ is perhaps not surprising, as these areas are almost entirely represented by Tory MPs. But in East and West Sussex, this means a lot of housing development will be squeezed into a relatively small area, as National Parks and AONBs cover over two thirds of the two counties.
There’s a big emphasis on building homes, with new, stricter (and higher) targets for councils to achieve, a burden that will fall heavily on councils in the South East. Here especially, there’s a huge need for social rented housing and other genuinely ‘affordable’ housing, but there’s nothing much on how these will be provided.
If the intention of this White Paper is getting more homes built, then it’s aimed at the wrong target. It’s not councils who mostly build the homes – they only grant the permissions. What’s preventing housing development is the failure of developers to build on land for which they already have planning permission. In some council areas, this ‘land banked’ land accounts for more than the council’s entire housing target.
Simply granting planning permission doesn’t get homes built, it just pushes up the value of the land. Councils need to be able to force developers to build if they’re to meet their housing targets. And there are no proposals for that in this White Paper.
And there’s a strange emphasis on ‘beauty’ in new developments – the word appears 15 times in the White Paper, including some fairly extraordinary statements such as ‘better off people experience more beauty than poorer people’. But there’s no explanation of what that means, or who will be defining what is beautiful.
Critics such as the Royal Institute of British Architects have already described the proposals as ‘disgraceful’, and the Royal Town Planning Institute as a ‘serious error’. But whatever Planning Act emerges from this White Paper, it will only be a small part of the story. The detailed rules on how councils determine planning zones, the kind of policies and rules they can include in their plans, standards to prevent climate change, requirements for public involvement in making local plans, and much more, will emerge in secondary legislation. And this doesn’t have to be subject to any consultation. It doesn’t even have to be agreed by parliament.
Overall, the ambition to simplify the planning system is a good one. Some of the proposals in the White Paper will achieve that. But it won’t mean more houses are built, particularly ones that people can afford. And it could take away significant control from councils over both their plan making and development control processes. That would be deeply unpopular, and damaging for local democracy.