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Top academic lambasts government proposals for zonal planning

Gavin Parker

Government plans to introduce zones will lead to a huge amount of work for planners, frustrate communities, damage neighbourhood planning and will not tackle complexities in the modern world, according to a leading academic.

Reading University planning professor Gavin Parker said it was unclear whether the planning white paper would achieve what it intends and predicted “a decade of disruption, a lack of clarity and uncertainty”.

In a presentation to a Civic Voice online webinar, he noted support for Japan’s zonal system, which delivers around 900,000 homes a year and cited in various studies to back the planning white paper. This was an  “amber flash whether this is a system we want to follow” and whether a codified approach could anticipate the complex problems thrown up in a modern world.

“The danger of a codified system is that it provides a certain degree of lock-in and requires a lot of draftsmanship and anticipation of what could happen in all the zones, but how do you allow for innovation or differentiation?” he said. “This was especially important in the context of how Covid-19 highlighted weaknesses in how we organise towns and cities.”

In Japan, zonal planning has led to a standardised set of developments, with some communities unsuccessfully trying to introduce pre-application negotiations with developers but “these have become discretionary and lack any real locus in law”.

He warned: “Our pre-applications would be put on the scrapheap.” Parker said the white paper treated neighbourhood planning as “an after-thought” and by implication an activity which “can be converted into a process that informs design codes”, calling on its supporters to explain its true role. “The people who wrote the white paper did not have neighbourhood planning in mind when they wrote it and may even see it as an inconvenience.” Proponents of zonal planning had not grasped “how much detail would be needed to produce plans that anticipate change in a complex world”, he said, adding that “in other countries, they have to constantly go back and recreate codes and zone maps that extend to hundreds of pages”. This has significant implications for planners’ workloads, Parker warned.

“You expect to see several zones where you have retail, residential or commercial uses in any area or around high streets. It’s very much about saying that part of the high street or district is for X kind of development. Even in a high-density residential zone, you need a lot of information to analyse and this doesn’t give a lot of clarity.

“There is a huge amount of work facing planners in identifying whether individual areas, districts and streets are residential, commercial or mixed use.” Parker agreed with the late Sir Peter Hall, the University College London professor who died in 2014, that developers have “a huge amount of power in our planning system already - it’s not that we have too much planning, but not enough of it”. He also pointed to a “huge lack of trust” in the planning system from communities.

“A zonal, codified approach, unless it features enhanced community involvement at every stage, will mean a new set of frustrations building up within communities,” he warned.