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Flexible zoning system is needed to deliver homes, says think tank 

Words: Laura Edgar
Zonal planning / Shutterstock_64270195

A position paper has recommended that a flexible zoning code be designed by national and devolved governments to set out patterns of development in local plans.

It also recommends that undeveloped land should be phased into the zoned area, which would replace the green belt.

According to the paper, published by think tank Centre for Cities, planning systems in the UK have inbuilt features that “inevitably create the affordability crisis” seen in cities and large towns. 

It contends that the UK’s “discretionary, case-by-case planning system rations land and restricts the supply of new homes”, which reduces affordability. 

Despite an increase in the supply of new homes, the housing crisis remains. The paper states that the lack of affordable housing in expensive cities and large towns is a “drag on the national economy, damages local prosperity, and deepens inequality”.

The think tank wants the UK Government and the devolved governments to move away from such a discretionary approach towards a flexible zoning system. It claims that a failure to do this “fuels inequality between prosperous places and those struggling, between homeowners and their children, and between the haves and the have-nots”.

The paper also suggests the following:

  • Proposals that comply with the national zoning code and national building regulations legally must be granted permission by local authorities to develop. Zoning by local government should be sensitive to local land values and provide most neighbourhoods with a small envelope for redevelopment. National government must remain committed to supporting more housing in expensive places after reform.
  • Public consultation to occur during the creation of local plans, instead of providing a potential veto for every individual development. Local rules and consultation should remain in place for aesthetic elements such as materials, façades, and landscaping.
  • Non-developed land should be phased into the zoned area, conditional on actual population growth. This approach would replace the green belt and end the rationing of new land for development while still protecting precious woodland, countryside, and nature reserves.
  • Non-economic considerations or special designations, such as conservation areas or opportunity zones, should continue to be included in local plans, provided that they are each subject to an economic cost-benefit analysis and are approved by the national government.
  • The discretionary negotiation of section 106 should be abolished and replaced with a flat 20 per cent levy on the value of development, to be spent on local infrastructure and new social housing.

In a letter sent to and published by The Times, responding to a piece by Martina Lees on zonal planning,  RTPI chief executive Victoria Hills highligted that the planning system "has been a political football for decades".

"However, dismantling it in favour of a zoning system would not result in faster planning permission or better development. Tackling climate change through a zoning system would be well-nigh impossible.

"We need to create bigger spatial plans using joined-up thinking on infrastructure. We also require measures to tackle climate change, the housing crisis and to restart local economies. A wider spatial planning approach with stronger, locally agreed design codes would allow us to plan the world we need; the blunt instrument of local planning zones would simply throw the baby out with the bath water."

The letter can be found here.

Planning for the Future: How Flexible Zoning Will End the Housing Crisis can be found on the Centre for Cities website.

Image credit | Shutterstock