Planning Matters: Future directions
By Chris Gosling
ALTHOUGH you may not be inspired or energised by it, you have probably noticed that a General Election is on the horizon. If you are reading this in the second half of the month, you will know the result (if any) but I am writing this in a state of November ignorance. It is an important time for the country, with the apparent opportunity to move in one of two directions.
The divergence between the two major parties also seems likely to have a big impact on planning. On one level, everyone is talking about increasing the supply of housing, although the emphasis on how affordable it would be is relatively absent from the camp with the blue rosettes. This has been the stock response to the lack of affordable housing, as if increasing supply has a simple relationship to price. Affordability has become an ever more important issue over a decade where wages have largely stagnated while house prices have rocketed.
Making fewer headlines is what will happen to what I recently heard being called‚ very aptly "the shadow planning system“. This title covers the range of changes that have been made to permitted development. Some of these require some details to be submitted instead of a full application, although the principle of the permission has already been made before that slimmed down application goes in. You may recall that the local case that I usually quote is Beacon Tower, the former DHSS building at the end of Lodge Causeway.
It is worth putting this shadow planning system into context. Many measures were introduced to bring about increased housing supply. Over the period of 2014-18, the changes have led to the provision of 88,000 dwellings, without one planning application submitted. At the same time, although boosting housing stock at the cheaper end of the market, none of them have actually been affordable, because that can only negotiated as part of a planning permission.
Affordable housing, simply put, is normally provided for sale or rent through a housing association, where the price is kept below free market value. Whether you are concerned about the headlines of some of these being akin to rabbit hutches and extensions looming over neighbouring houses and gardens or not, the 88,000 figure speaks for itself, as does the timescale.
The downside of lack of planning scrutiny is seen as either collateral damage or undermining the reputation of planning among the general public. It is a result of politicians making decisions that they are fully entitled to make as our elected representatives.
I wonder if there is any connection with the lack of esteem that politicians are currently held in. But with the moves to the right and left of the major parties, what does that hold in store?
Labour are talking about reversing this shadow planning system that has grown up since the start of the coalition.
The Conservatives seem more likely to de-regulate further, either moving more development into this grey area or simply making more development free from planning oversight altogether. An idea that has been doing the rounds for 5 years is removing planning scrutiny for two storey, then reduced to one storey, now possibly two storey again extensions on top of existing houses.
The complexity of the scope of this is possibly what has held the government back to date. Would this mean flats above houses, in which case, how would access to them be achieved?
A recent idea put forward is that councils should produce specific design guidance for such extensions, so that adding another storey or two would be in keeping with the house and street.
To date, the implications and mitigation that would be required to facilitate this de-regulation has held up implementation of this idea.
What lies in store for the future of planning, along with so much else, will be determined by voters. What seems likely however is that the next changes coming down the track are going to be radical changes. Always assuming, of course, that the politicians do what they promise.