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Mixed views on the prime minister’s Covid-19 recovery plan

Words: Laura Edgar
Discuss / iStock-646884988

Professionals across the built environment sector have broadly welcomed Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plans to reform the planning system in a bid to help the country recover from Covid-19, but some have cautioned against further deregulation.

During his speech yesterday (30 June), Johnson attributed the reasons for why the country is “so slow at building homes” compared with Europe to “the newt-counting delays in our system [which] are a massive drag on the productivity and the prosperity of this country”.

He said the government would invest in and accelerate infrastructure across the UK as well as promote a clean, green recovery and strengthen the union and local government.

Under the new rules, existing commercial properties, such as newly vacant shops, would be “more easily” converted into housing. The measures to change the use classes order are aimed at making it easier to create new homes and regenerate vacant buildings.

The measures are due to come into effect by September.

The RTPI has said its members are ready to “build, build, build”, but reminded the government of its ambition for a green recovery. Building homes, schools, hospitals, roads and digital connectivity needs to be in line with the government carbon net-zero targets.

RTPI chief executive Victoria Hills said: “We welcome this much-needed investment in our national building programme and infrastructure. Planners working in a stable planning system are well placed to drive this investment to ensure we begin constructing the homes, hospitals, schools, digital and transport infrastructure in the right places for communities whilst also achieving our national carbon net-zero targets for a green recovery.

“Our Plan the World We Need campaign and report sets out how we can achieve the government’s ambitions to revitalise our communities and carbon net-zero targets through supporting the existing world-leading planning system and profession.”

Three areas need tackling

“Changes to the planning system that speed it up, make it more flexible and help deliver certainty are needed and will be well received by most,” commented Craig Blatchford, head of planning at Montagu Evans.

To “move the dial and make a real difference” to delivering change the government needs to tackle three areas in particular and make them work at a practical level, he explained. These are:

  1. Make sure that there is sufficient resource across the system at all levels and in all relevant bodies.
  2. Make sure that statutory consultees central to the decision-making process such as Natural England, Highways England, and the Environment Agency are properly accountable.
  3. Remove inconsistencies in decision-making, particularly with large-scale and cross-boundary developments where there is potential to make most difference to housing numbers.

“Finally, though, for some important areas – such as town centre regeneration – these planning changes will still not be enough. Proposals that may be commercially unviable or marginal but serve an important social purpose will need to be supported by practical and financial assistance to encourage development where it is needed most.”

Moving closer to US zoning

Kathryn Hampton, senior expertise lawyer at Ashurst, said the devil would be in the detail.

“The changes are due to come into force quickly to boost confidence and investment at this time of crisis, which shows the government’s clear commitment to refuelling the economy.

“Limiting local authority input would be a major change, moving things closer to the US system of zoning, may be of concern to some. It’s certainly radical reform, pushing the boundaries of permitted development rights.

“How will this work in practice? It can’t be a planning free-for-all, but there's little point if we’ve just swapped one string of red tape for another. How much detail will the prior approval process require?

“When the replacement of old vacant buildings with new homes idea was first announced, there were concerns that it wouldn't make much difference in practice. Let’s see what the government has done about that.”

The art of unforeseen consequences

Stuart Andrews, national head of planning and infrastructure consenting at Eversheds Sutherland, noted that “the Thatcherite ‘Lifting the Burden’ in the 1980s heralded a wholesale reform to the UK planning system”. 

Although there is no doubt that Thatcher had a plan, he explained, even her initiative made “modest revision” to a system that has remained largely unchanged since its inception in 1947.

“It is difficult to dismantle a system where any effective change requires the ceding of governance away from localised control. That’s what zoning, development corporations or consenting nationally significant projects will do. Relaxing permitted development rights might look a simple solution, but it isn’t a plan and where we have seen this of late it has only served to deliver the slums not just of the future, but of the moment. As ever, planning reform is the art of unforeseen consequences.”

Simplifying planning will deliver economic recovery

CLA president Mark Bridgeman welcomed the reforms, stating that the CLA has been asking for this for many years. 

“At a time when many people are understandably considering leaving the city for a more rural life, we must ensure the rural economy is fit for purpose; an effective, efficient and proportionate planning system is a key component of delivering that.   

“A simplified planning regime will facilitate the economic recovery we desperately need, delivering jobs, homes and much-improved environmental and natural capital resources. But we need further detail from government, and a commitment to work with landowners and rural businesses to deliver a first-class planning regime that works for the rural economy in practise, not just in theory.”

Unclear how announcements will level up

“While the prime minister’s references to building beautiful, low-carbon homes, his re-commitment to ‘levelling up’ and his desire to ‘fix the problems that were illuminated during Covid’ are positive, it is totally unclear how the associated announcements around extending permitted development rights will achieve these priorities,” argued Fiona Howie, chief executive of the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA). 

“The prime minister also committed to radical planning reform, with an emphasis on speeding up the system. If we want to build back better and build back greener, this needs to be central to any planning reform agenda. As does the need to focus on delivering better outcomes for people. Instead of continuing to argue that the planning system is a barrier, decision-makers must see planning as a crucial part of the solution. Covid brought to the fore the importance of local green spaces, high quality, genuinely affordable homes. But rather than any indication that these lessons have been learnt much of the investment programme is about traditional infrastructure. 

“In the past ‘radical’ planning reform has meant taking democratic accountability out of the system, but you can’t build without community consent. And we can’t aim to revitalise town centres without involving local communities. Steamrolling over people’s views will be divisive and counterproductive. What we have heard from the government is campaign rhetoric, not real leadership to enable meaningful change to tackle our health, housing and climate crises.”

Better to focus on resources

Roger Tustain, managing director at Nexus Planning outlined the difficulties with planning reform.

“The difficulty with governmental attempts to overhaul the planning system is that with each major reform (the last being 2012 with the abolition of regional planning), thought rarely goes into the practical implications of delivering the system quickly. Major changes and new strategies will take time to plan if they’re to be done properly – and this could lead to procrastination at a local level which impacts on housing delivery. The irony is that radical change to the planning system could in the short to medium term impact on delivering government housing growth objectives.

“Before we change the technical side of the system itself (again), it’d be better to focus on significantly enhancing public sector resourcing in strategic planning – ‘freeing the planner’ from minor/domestic applications, which accounts for a huge number of all applications and can get overly politicised. Local authority planning needs to be visionary and proactive at both political and officer level. At present, things tend to be far too reactive and under-resourced.”

Planning powers should be local

James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association, said: “We are pleased the government has pledged to invest in local priorities such as building homes and infrastructure, boosting connectivity and fixing roads.

“Planning powers must remain at a local level, to enable councils to deliver resilient, prosperous places that meet the needs of their communities. To fix the housing crisis, councils should be given the powers and tools to resume their role as major builders of affordable housing and deliver a programme of 100,000 social homes a year.

“We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to not just recover from this crisis but to go further and address the stark inequalities the virus has exposed, develop a green recovery, address skills gaps and rebuild the economy so that it benefits everyone. With the right funding and powers, councils can get local economies started again and deliver a pipeline of long-term investment that will revive the economy and deliver long-term economic, social and environmental transformation.”


Clive Docwra, managing director of property and construction consultancy McBains, said: “On the face of it, the prime minister’s announcement is extremely encouraging. A building boom is exactly what the construction sector and the economy needs after being decimated by the Covid-19 crisis... Private new housing work is at its lowest level for a decade and last month saw a record fall in private commercial work – so public sector projects will be of huge importance in order for the sector to get back on its feet again.

“Measures like streamlined planning, greater flexibility associated with PDR rights, extensions to the help-to-buy scheme and new mechanisms to encourage private sector investment in public sector initiatives, will be warmly welcomed. But there’s still much more to do to increase construction activity and housebuilding rates to the levels needed to meet the shortage of homes. Ultimately, clarity of pipeline and early commitments to policy changes will enable businesses to plan and invest, and thus support employment and economic growth.

“Plus, if we are to really experience an infrastructure and construction boom that truly levels up, we need to see construction firms from all corners of the UK, and of all shapes and sizes, not just the multinationals, be a part of these plans.”

Deregulation won’t help

Tom Fyans, policy and campaigns director at CPRE, the countryside charity, commented: “Deregulating planning and cutting up red tape simply won’t deliver better-quality places. It’s already far too easy to build poor-quality homes. Our research has shown that three-quarters of large housing developments are mediocre or poor in terms of their design and should not have been granted planning permission. Transferring decision-making power from local councils and communities and handing them to developers is the exact opposite of building back better.

“The best way to deliver the places that we need, at the pace we need them, is to make it easier for local councils to get local plans in place, and then to hold developers to those plans. One glimmer of hope in the prime minister’s words is those prioritising building on brownfield to release pressure on greenfield sites. But if we are to truly build back better, and ‘level up’ across the country, we need to make sure the voice of local communities are strengthened in shaping the homes and places that they will inherit.”

Read more:

Johnson outlines plans to change the use classes order  

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