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Legal landscape: Minority report: what next for planning?

Theresa May

The pledges made in the Conservative Party manifesto were heavy on promise but light on detail, and near silent on deliverability. So what happens now?

As the dust settles after the shock general election result, I’m sure I am not alone in finding it difficult to be enthusiastic about what lies ahead. From a planning perspective, there was little in the campaign that stood out as new or innovative.

It is easy to commit to building 1.5 million homes by 2022 when there is no depth or substance as to how this will be achieved.

Supporting “high-quality, high-density housing like mansion blocks, mews houses and terraced streets” while ruling out any reassessment of the green belt leaves me wondering what the government thinks it will be doing in the next Parliament that hasn’t already been proved not to work in the last one. 

The Conservatives rightly said that “we have not provided the infrastructure, parks, quality of space and design that turns housing into community and makes communities… sustainable”. 

But do you have any confidence that more public money will be made available to tackle this underinvestment? Proposals to capture the increase in land value created by housing development suggest that lessons have not been learnt from the disastrously over-engineered CIL system.

Commitments have been made to some big-ticket infrastructure, including HS2, Heathrow, Northern Powerhouse Rail and improvements to the strategic road network. In the hokey-cokey world of projects falling in and out of fashion, there is an ever-present risk of losing political support for major infrastructure schemes; a hung Parliament exacerbates this risk because of the flimsiness of consensus around projects.

Fortunately, the regime for nationally significant infrastructure projects is in rude health. Promoters have access to a (relatively) efficient and reliable means of securing planning consents, meaning that getting planning permission for these grands projets is probably the most predictable – and therefore easiest – process to manage through planning.

"Tackling this means accepting that localism (a word that used to be uniquitous in planning but only appeared in the UKIP manifesto at this election) doesn't work"

By comparison, delivering smaller developments is harder than ever. The Conservatives have pledged to extend mobile coverage to 95 per cent of the UK, but look at the vehement local resistance a single new mobile phone mast typically generates. They also promised “more and better homes, welcomed by existing communities”, but residents up and down the country continue to fight housebuilding at every turn.

The difference is that the planning system works at the national level, but is failing locally. Big problems – such as fixing “the dysfunctional housing market” – need national solutions and the political will to deliver them. This means accepting that localism (a word once ubiquitous in planning, but that only appeared in UKIP’s 2017 manifesto) doesn’t work. 

If the new government understands this, then we can expect more development (including housing) to be brought within the national planning system established by the Planning Act 2008; and fewer schemes needing a planning application at all, with a further expansion of permitted development rights.

What else can we expect in the coming months? Not much. Converting a long manifesto full of vague promises into detailed legislation would take considerable time, resources and political capital. A minority government has none of these at its disposal. With Brexit set to dominate life in Westminster and Whitehall, I cannot see planning being anywhere near the top of the legislative agenda for the next five years.

That may be no bad thing. When was the last time that planning reform actually improved anything? The Conservative manifesto said that this country boasts the finest architects and planners in the world. Perhaps it is time to give them a chance to deliver the planning that this country deserves.  

Matthew White is a partner and head of the London planning team at Herbert Smith Freehills

Image | Shutterstock


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