In the zone

September 03 2020
In the zone

Planning Matters, by Chris Gosling

LAST month I explained that the slow delivery of housing was not all the fault of the planning system. Now we are on the verge of the system being overhauled, with a White Paper on the future of planning due in the Autumn. The irony does not end there. With the country getting ever closer to "taking back control", the time has apparently arrived to abandon the planning system that I always understood to be the "envy of the rest of the world" in favour of something more akin to planning on the continent and, perhaps more pertinently, in the US. It all comes together in a so-called simplification known as zoning.

Of course, we cannot be sure that the ongoing consultation process leading up to this change will be ignored, but let’s assume that is what will happen. This is a fair assumption, as I can’t recall the last time that a major or minor planning policy change was more than moderated at the margins, based on the opinions of those who would be affected or are charged with putting it into practice. The desire to simplify things allows the opportunity to leave the detail until later, but the principles of new-look planning are becoming clearer and zoning will be at the heart of it, alongside a reduction in the chance of involvement for local people.

According to the government, the aim is to ensure that planning permissions are turned into homes at a faster rate than at present. Change is needed because there is too much bureaucracy, complication and delay, and planning has become out of touch with the modern age. Planning has contributed to the generational divide between those who own property and those who don’t. There is plenty to agree with there, but does that require the system to change or would it function better if it were to be properly resourced? That is an inconvenient question that does not seem to have occurred to a government bent on reform. As for the generational divide, planning may have played a minor part in this, if indeed it is planners that have determined the pitiful supply of affordable homes, but the other factors remain unexamined. I would argue that most of them have stemmed from government policy.

So how will the biggest change since the inception of planning work? Through "democratic local agreement", all land in the country will zoned under one of three categories: for growth, (which will include permission in principle for housing, hospitals, shops and schools) for renewal or for protection. From that point on, the main remaining issue will not be what is built but the design of it. A national design code is proposed, which can then be tailored locally. Permission in principle will effectively mean that planning permission has automatically been approved, subject to design details. Planning proposals and public consultation in them would then be limited to how closely they meet the design codes in force at the time.

The aim in urban areas will be for "gentle densification", which has the potential to become a very loaded phrase. In stark contrast to this, the protection zone is likely to cover the Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Conservation Areas, perhaps even all of the countryside. There is little to argue with there in physical terms, but there is also the factor that these areas tend to contain the most expensive housing already, and protecting these would hardly enfranchise the generation that has been priced out. Levelling up the generational divide doesn't come into it.

There are so many aspects to this that will become clearer when the details emerge.

Planning in this country has for so long been seen as the potential cure for many ills. It is expected to guide the right kind of development in the right places; ensure the provision of infrastructure; be sensitive to the market in implementing local plans; ensure public engagement brings the public along with the decision-makers; be democratic, legally sound and ultimately to balance many competing needs in arriving at the right decisions.

My fear is that this will be replaced by hurried broad-brush designations, followed by a check list approach, with rules replacing subtlety, experience and judgement. A system that can be regulated by box-ticking can ultimately be run by computers. Perhaps that is planning fit for the modern age. Maybe it will result in towns of the architectural quality of Bath, Belgravia and Bournville, to quote the government's exemplars. Then again, with all due respect, Basildon, Bethnal Green and Bootle also start with the same letter.