The Green Urbanist

#8: Planning for the Future - White Paper on a New Planning System for England

September 27, 2020 Ross O'Ceallaigh
The Green Urbanist
#8: Planning for the Future - White Paper on a New Planning System for England
The Green Urbanist
#8: Planning for the Future - White Paper on a New Planning System for England
Sep 27, 2020
Ross O'Ceallaigh

This episode provides a summary of the main proposals in the UK government White Paper, Planning for the Future, which sets out a new planning system for England.

I discuss the move away from a discretionary planning system to one based on zoning, how the new system intends to promote design quality and delivering more housing and the changing role of technology in planning.

Read the full White Paper here:

Consultation webpage:

Follow the podcast on social media:

References/Further Reading:

Show Notes Transcript

This episode provides a summary of the main proposals in the UK government White Paper, Planning for the Future, which sets out a new planning system for England.

I discuss the move away from a discretionary planning system to one based on zoning, how the new system intends to promote design quality and delivering more housing and the changing role of technology in planning.

Read the full White Paper here:

Consultation webpage:

Follow the podcast on social media:

References/Further Reading:

Welcome to the Green Urbanist podcast. I'm Ross.
This episode is maybe a bit different that usual. Instead of talking about high level global issues like climate change I'm going to be discussing the new government white paper called Planning for the Future, which the English government has released. It provides a vision for a totally new planning system for England. This is of course of interest to any listeners who live and work in England but if you are listening in from somewhere else in the world, you may still find this episode interesting. Most planning systems around the world are at this point several decades old or adapted from older systems. This episode is really about asking if we were to create a new system that is fit for the 21st century, what would it look like? So you are likely to find some thought provoking ideas here that you can adapt to your own context

I'll give you a synopsis of the government's white paper with some of my thoughts and analysis as we go. The reason this paper is so important is because it is a consultation document. We are being asked our views on these proposals. So please, after you've listened to the episode and had a read of the document yourself, go to the consultation website and give your comments and feedback. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to fundamentally change how planning is done in this country.

The paper begins by setting out what are the problems and shortcomings of England's planning system. And I have to say, they get this bit absolutely right. To understand these criticisms, you have to understand that we have what's called a discretionary planning system. Local authorities create local plans filled with policies that try to nudge development towards good outcomes and then every single proposal is assessed based on its merits at the discretion of the local authority planners. This is in contrast to most other planning systems around the world which are based on zoning, where local authorities proactively decide what development they want to see, in what form and where. We'll talk a lot more about zoning later on.

So, the criticisms of the current system are that firstly its too complex, it is difficult to understand, to navigate and therefore comes with inherent uncertainty, delay and risk.

It takes too long to adopt a local plan - on average it takes a local authority seven years to create and adopt a new local plan, which means all the evidence you collected for your 2020 local plan is from 2013 - and may be totally out of date. Just for reference, in Ireland every single local authority adopts a new local every 6 years. They just do it. This means that planning policy is always up to date, based on the newest evidence and in line with the latest vision for the place. To be honest, there isn't a lot of aspects of the Irish system I would copy but this is definitely one of them.

Assessments of housing need, viability and environmental impacts are too complex, highly contested and don't often lead to better outcomes as they should.

The planning system has lost public trust with a recent poll showing that only 7% of people trust their local council to make decisions about large scale development. And consultation processes miss out on huge swathes of the population.

The system is based on 20th century technology. I worked in a local authority back in 2016 where they still had paper files for every planning application. This is not uncommon in England. Even council websites are often a disaster. I'm a qualified planner with two university degrees and often I still can't manage to navigate council websites to find their up to date local plan, if they have one, and the supporting planning documents I need. Finding and commenting on planning applications is another herculean task that often makes me want to curl up in a ball in a quiet room afterwards - that's how bad the technology around planning is.

The process for negotiating developer contributions to affordable housing and infrastructure is complex, protracted and unclear: as a result, the outcomes can be uncertain, which further diminishes trust in the system and reduces the ability of local planning authorities to plan for and deliver necessary infrastructure.

There is not enough focus on design, and little incentive for high quality new homes and places: There is insufficient incentive within the process to bring forward proposals that are beautiful and which will enhance the environment, health, and character of local areas. Local Plans do not provide enough certainty around the approved forms of development, relying on vague and verbal statements of policy rather than the popularly endorsed visual clarity that can be provided by binding design codes. This means that quality can be negotiated away too readily and the lived experience of the consumer ignored too readily.

Finally, it simply does not lead to enough homes being built. The conversation around planning in England has been dominated by the lack of housing and especially affordable housing. The planning system has been identified as a crucial bottleneck, which prevents homes coming forward. Please understand, I am not saying that it is the fault of planners themselves - planners work exceptionally hard and do their bast with a bad system - it is the fault of the system itself.

In fact a great report by the Centre for Cities, which rather confusingly is also called Planning for the Future, describes how the English planning system has close similarities to the bureaucracies of former Eastern Block economies, in which every part of the economy was planned. A common feature between the two is a chronic shortage in housing supply. The article describes the housing market in England as a Shortage Economy, and goes on to say:

"While a temporary shortage in toilet paper will resolve itself with time as supply, demand, and prices change, in a shortage economy these adjustments struggle to or cannot take place. Economic activity is restricted by bottlenecks which are part of the economy’s institutional set-up and cannot be avoided by producers or consumers. 
These conditions applied in the economies of the former Eastern Bloc. The housing crisis in England and in many cities around the world meet the criteria of a shortage economy too. New housing supply in England is ultimately determined by how much land is rationed out for development in each place by the planning system, rather than by people’s ability to pay for new homes in places where they want to live."

While we're in the critiquing mood, the report also has this to say on the low quality of many developments:
"The undersupply of housing discussed above means that there is little need to compete on quality. Firms can be confident that they can produce poor quality products and people will have no choice but to buy them."

Ain't that the truth.

As I said, I think the white paper does a great job in summarising the issues with the current planning system. And this gives me confidence that the suggestions to come are based on an understanding of the reality. One thing that I think they did not include in the report, perhaps for political reasons, but which is glaringly obvious to me, is the lack of funding  available to planning departments. Often delays are caused in the system simply because there aren't enough staff to handle the volume of applications. The government needs to acknowledge that a decade of austerity measures have taken a serious toll on local authorities and they need funding now for additional staff, new technology and training.

Okay, what about the proposals - that's what you're here for.

The white paper contains a lot of detail on many aspects of how the planning system could be changed and improved and I couldn't possibly talk about everything here so I'll focus on the key elements. 
The main thing that everyone is talking about is the proposal to move planning away from a discretionary system to a more zoning based system. This means that local plans, instead of being full of vague policies, will become simplified and much more spatial and visual. Local authorities will categorise all the land in their area under three headings. These are Growth Areas, Protected Areas and Renewal Areas. Growth Areas would be areas that you clearly want to see development in such as vacant urban sites or suitable greenfield sites where you could see urban expansion.
Protected Areas would be areas with more stringent controls on the development because of their sensitivity and would include areas like the green belt, areas of outstanding natural beauty and conservation areas. Okay, so far these seem very familiar and sensible. The third category, Renewal Areas, is the most interesting I think.
Quoting directly from the white paper,  "this would cover existing built areas where smaller scale development is appropriate. It could include the gentle densification and infill of residential areas, development in town centres, and development in rural areas that is not annotated as Growth or Protected areas, such as small sites within or on the edge of villages.". So Renewal Areas are really about intensification of existing urban areas, getting more homes into town and city centres using whatever space you can find. This is a double edged sword - in places where there are gaps in the urban fabric, it would be great top encourage small infill developments but there is always the risk of overly intensifying already densely packed town centres.

You may be thinking that only having three categories is overly simplistic - Cities are complex, how can we possibly divide them into three broad classifications? I think these three areas are just the beginning. The white paper goes on to say that local plans will set out sub-areas within these categories and provide guidance on appropriate uses, building heights and densities - so there will be more detail in there.

The real purpose for having these three broad categories is that areas defined as Growth Areas would automatically be granted outline planning permission for the principle of development. This doesn't mean that someone can just start building immediately, a proposal still needs to gain full planning permission. But because the principle of development has already been approved, an application for full permission should now focus on securing good design and dealing with site specific technical issues rather than arguing about the principle of development itself. This should streamline the process and provide more certainty for everyone involved. I've seen a lot of people online getting very stressed out about this because it sounds like we will just be handing out planning permissions all over the place without proper scrutiny. I think actually this proposal makes a lot of sense. It means local authorities are very clear about what would be acceptable on a particular site and developers are likely to stick to this in order to get a fast track through the planning system. This provides much more certainty for local communities and the development industry, which should also result in more housing being delivered in the right locations. If a developer wants to propose something different to what is in the local plan, then they just have to apply for a traditional planning application, which will be judged on its merits, like we do now. So there is still some flexibility within the system.

For Renewal Areas, the rules are a bit more complex. According to the paper, consent for development would be granted in one of three ways:

  • for pre-specified forms of development such as the redevelopment of certain building types, through a new permission route which gives an automatic consent if the scheme meets design and other prior approval requirements (as discussed further under the fast-track to beauty proposals set out under Pillar Two);
  •  for other types of development, a faster planning application process where a planning application for the development would be determined in the context of the Local Plan description, for what development the area or site is appropriate for, and with reference to the National Planning Policy Framework; or
  • a Local or Neighbourhood Development Order.

Again here, the focus is on the local authority being proactive in stating what development they want to see where and them promoting that through these fast track planning processes. The big question I have is how much opportunity will there be for the local authority to demand good quality design. If a developer comes forward with a proposal that perfectly matches the vision for a site set out in the local plan, but its a bit boring design wise, a bit pastiche and not really at the level we want for our city, will the local authority really be able to refuse permission on those grounds? 

Well, the shift in approach that the White Paper proposes is that instead of leaving it to developers to lead the design conversation, local authorities lead the way. So for large sites in Growth Areas, local authorities should prepare masterplans and design codes alongside their local plans to show developers exactly what they expect from a proposal and, we hope, lead to good design outcomes.

For Renewal Areas, where opportunities for development may be on smaller sites or through intensification, the White Paper wants to see local authorities preparing what are called Pattern Books. These are a kind of design code that is based around standard building types. So the authority will set out what building typologies are acceptable on different kinds of sites and then developers will be immediately able to build these out through permitted development rights. 
Now, as a recap, permitted development rights are a mechanism in England that allows householders and developers to do certain things without any planning permission at all. This includes extensions to homes as long as they are within certain dimensions, and even conversion of office buildings into residential use. Now, the point of permitted development is to reduce work for the local authority and allow development that would generally be considered acceptable anyway. And yet, all the local authority planners I know, when you mention permitted development rights, they roll their eyes. Because often it just creates a new set of problems. Firstly, people are unsurprisingly nervous to just start building something without any piece of paper telling them they are allowed to. So you can submit your plans to your planning authority, who will check if they comply with the permitted development rights and then issue you a lawful development certificate. Yes, this process is quicker than a full planning application but it still creates work for the local authority and if you walk around any town or city in England you will find tons of examples of permitted developments that would never have been granted permission if they went through that route. This is because they are often extremely ugly.

This government seems hell bent on extending permitted development rights as a way to solve the housing crisis when all the evidence that I've seen suggests that permitted development is just creating new problems for our towns and cities. So this proposal makes me nervous, to say the least. Why not use the pattern books as a starting point for a discussion on the design of small sites, while still going through some kind of planning application process. It still provides more certainty on the outcome and allows some flexibility for local architects to adapt the pattern book buildings to the site they are developing. After all, typological approaches like this work great until you have a really atypical site and you're left trying to cram a square shaped block through a circular hole. And many of the small sites available in cities and towns will be these strange, atypical leftover sites that need a more considered response.

Those are my thoughts anyway. In general, I think these proposals probably could succeed in a faster and more certain planning process and better outcomes in terms of design quality and bringing the right uses to the right places. It's really a question of how the new system is implemented and how well local authorities are supported and funded to do all of this properly.

Now, planning isn't just about delivering housing, although that seems to be what we spend 90% of time talking about. Planning is also a crucial mechanism for fighting climate change, reducing carbon emissions and making our towns and cities happier, healthier places to live. This being the Green Urbanist podcast, we need to see what this Whit Paper is proposing on these topics.

Firstly, the paper has some pretty vague wording on how it will improve policy around climate change and environmental improvements. Whereas the proposals we talked about earlier in regard to design are fairly concrete and well thought out, two of the main proposals around climate change and the environment start with the phrase "We intend to". So We intend to amend national policy...We  intend to design a new framework... etc. So really there isn't much to comment on here. 

There is one concrete proposal around energy efficiency. Proposal number 18 (yes, they are all numbered and yes, I've skipped over quite a few) says: "From 2025, we expect new homes to produce 75-80 per cent lower CO2 emissions compared to current levels. These homes will be ‘zero carbon ready’, with the ability to become fully zero carbon homes over time as the electricity grid decarbonises, without the need for further costly retrofitting work."

Brilliant, that's what we want to see. But I would say in general the document is light on detail when it comes to the planning systems role in reducing carbon emissions. Just as the White Paper is firmly placing design quality as a priority, I would also like to see it prioritising sustainable development in the same way.

If you remember back to the start of this episode, one of our criticisms of the current planning system is its poor use of technology and the lack of meaningful opportunities for consultation and collaboration with the public. The White Paper wants to see a fundamental change in how we organise planning information and use data. This means moving away from the traditional pdf documents and old-school forms that accompany planning applications and instead using a digital format that is machine readable.