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07/08/2020

Planning for the Future: It's zoning, Mr Jenrick, but not as we know it

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Zonal planning / Shutterstock_64270195

Andrew Martin, senior planner with Braintree District Council, casts his eye over the proposals in Planning for the Future and finds – among some digital gems – that not all is quite as it was billed

Having reviewed the proposals set out within Planning for the Future, the forthcoming reform is not perhaps what I was anticipating.  In the build-up to publication there was much speculation in the press, possibly fuelled by the content circulated by the Policy Exchange think-tank over recent months, that we were going to be facing a full-blown zonal system commensurate to that in the US and elsewhere.  This has turned out not to be the case.

In essence, the proposals represent a means of transitioning to a hybrid style system, one which comprises simplified elements of the existing system alongside an increase in the use of tools and characteristics often associated with zoning. 

“It is not the wholesale overhaul of the existing planning system that had been widely speculated”

It is not then, in my view, the wholesale overhaul of the existing planning system that had been widely speculated.  However, this does not detract from the scale of the changes and challenges ahead, both logistically and politically.  As a consequence, it remains to be seen whether the reform will actually tackle the key driving issues of delays, uncertainty, and complexity.

Within the white paper there were still, of course, the usual disparaging references to the planning system being a barrier to growth and delivery, implying that responsibility for the ongoing housing crisis largely falls at the feet of planners and of planning departments – a rhetoric which ignores a large number of other factors at play.

Moreover, it was difficult to grapple with the emphasis on better design when the same government has just introduced a range of further potentially harmful permitted development rights. But that aside, there are on the face of it a number of positive proposals that could address some of the current issues faced, if implemented effectively.

The first thing which immediately stood out to me was the ambition to revolutionise the integration of digital technology and data into the planning system. Public consultations, local plans, design codes and planning applications, amongst a long list of other planning matters and processes, are all set to be given a shake-up in terms of their composition, visual presentation and opportunities for interaction.

“Even as a planner it can be disheartening to face large volumes of primarily text-based policies”

Delivering on this promise could have numerous benefits, including wider-reaching community engagement, greater transparency and a far more spatial approach to how we plan for the future. It would also be no bad thing to make local plans more digestible. Even as a planner it can be disheartening to face large volumes of primarily text-based policies, many of which duplicate issues covered by the NPPF, something that the reform similarly seeks to address.

Secondly, it was at long last refreshing to see that the value of planners and of planning departments is being recognised, even despite the initial aforementioned references to planning being a barrier to growth and delivery. Whatever stance you take, hate them or love them, it is fundamental that planning departments are sufficiently resourced going forward or else the reform is destined to fail from the outset.

Proposed transitional funding, alongside increased income generation through planning application fees, in addition to cost savings associated with the abandonment of press advertisements, is all therefore welcome. I would, though, suggest that additional funding could be given to planning departments which abide by statutory targets, rather than financially penalising those who do not. Basically, given the current context of under-staffed and overworked planning departments, the carrot may be a more attractive incentive than the stick.

“Given the current context of under-staffed and overworked planning departments, the carrot may be a more attractive incentive than the stick”

As a caveat to all of the above, it is notable that there are currently a lot of unanswered questions, outstanding details, and concerns in relation to numerous of the proposals put forward, clarification on which will be just as pivotal going forward as what we discovered in the paper itself.

There is also now a need for some longer-term consistency in the approach taken and a general acceptance that there will be teething issues. Perhaps the most daunting situation that could occur would be for significant preparations and progress to be made on the new proposals only to have them scrapped, or redefined, following the end of the current Parliamentary term.  Planners need to work collaboratively, putting their best foot forward, to implement the planning system in the most effective way possible to address the pressing issues of climate change, population growth, and inequality.

Andrew Martin is a senior planner with Braintree District Council

Image credit | Shutterstock

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