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05/11/2020

Legal landscape: Planning for the Future is no stellar act

The planning white paper is laudable in its ambition to fix planning, says Ben Arrowsmith, but may need a little refinement in parts

“We sit in the mud, my friend, and reach for the stars.”

I am sure it was not the English planning system that Turgenev had in mind when he penned this in Fathers and Sons but it resonates with our planning system’s current predicament: paucity of affordable homes; inconsistencies; lack of and delayed infrastructure; not enough homes for local people. The system is, arguably, in the mud and the planning white paper, Planning for the Future, laudably reaches for the stars.

Local plans

The white paper looks to front-load the system, putting “new emphasis on engagement at the plan-making stage”. This will, in turn, “streamline the opportunity for consultation at the planning application stage” – government-speak which translates as “applications made in accordance with the local plan will be automatically granted”.

This is not a bad thing but, in practice, clear guidance must be issued for people to understand how to effectively respond to any local plan consultation: the paper states that, currently, consultation is dominated by “the few willing and able to navigate the process – the voice of those who stand to gain from development is not heard loudly enough, such as young people”.

Given the crucial role the local plan will take regarding development, people must engage with the process. This crucial task is being looked at by the Local Government Association (LGA).

Inconsistency/consistency

No one will argue that planning decisions are inconsistent across the country (despite the aims of the NPPF). It is understandable that what is acceptable in one place is not in another.

But the idea that all applications that accord with the local plan should receive permission will, in theory at least, give consistency to developments within any given administrative area. I believe that, given the local variations for housing requirements and SME developers, the touted infrastructure levy (as proposed in Planning for the Future) should not be one set figure but should allow for regional variation.

Paradoxically, such a variation should reduce inconsistency in planning decisions, given that the infrastructure levy will be based on what can reasonably be sought in any given administrative area, thereby obviating drastic inconsistencies from policy in respect of, for example, affordable housing.

“As thousands of unfortunate students found out over the summer, algorithms are not always helpful”

Affordable housing

This country has suffered from a woeful under-provision of affordable homes under all hues of government. The white paper sets out initiatives to improve this.

But there are contradictions in its proposals. The white paper states that the new infrastructure levy will allow local planning authorities “to secure more on-site [affordable] housing provision” and yet also states that it will ensure that ”affordable housing provision supported through developer contributions is kept at least at current levels”.

There is also the proposed temporary lifting of the small sites’ threshold to “up to 40 or 50 units” before any affordable housing can be sought.

Housing numbers

There is disquiet about the government’s algorithm dealing with where houses should be built which, say reports, has a percentage increase of 161 per cent (as against current delivery) for London and 57 per cent for the South East, compared with -28 per cent for the North East.

This cannot be right if we are trying to invigorate the North’s economy. As students found out over the summer, algorithms are not always helpful. The LGA’s housing spokesman said it best: “Algorithms and formulas can never be a substitute for local knowledge and decision-making by councils and communities who know their areas best.”

In these days of short, succinct messages, I suggest a Blairite “Engage. Engage. Engage” (to run alongside “Hands. Face. Space”).  


In Brief

  • There is no doubt the planning system is in need of reform 
  • Planning for the Future’s suggestions for improving the system are laudable but contain flaws in key areas – not least a reliance of standardised approaches 
  • Local knowledge and local engagement are the keys to good local planning

Ben Arrowsmith is an associate in the planning team with BDB Pitmans

Image credit | Shutterstock

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