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Planning for the Future: Tackling the UK’s housing crisis?

Housebuilding / iStock-889654612

It’s simply wrong to say that the planning system put in place 70 years ago is the same as the one we use today, says Brian Mullin - nevertheless, change would still be welcome if we're to build more housing

The development industry has been profoundly affected by Covid-19, and the impacts will reverberate for a long time to come. The lockdown has brought with it an urgency from government to stimulate the failing economy. A clarion call of “build, build, build” accompanies the government’s aim to build 300,000 homes per annum by the mid-2020s. 

The government is consulting on a white paper, Planning For The Future which aims to deliver “a comprehensive reform of England’s seven-decade old planning system, to introduce a new approach that works better for our modern economy and society”. The tag line appears revolutionary, albeit underpinned with an unfortunate ageist attack; and it succeeds in blending the familiar characteristic of ebullience with the trait of misspeak. 

The reality is that the current planning system wasn’t designed seven decades ago. It is a manifestation of legislative sediment and many cycles of reform since it was instituted in 1947. The latest consultation is part of an ongoing effort to perfect the imperfectible, and potentially marks the most significant change to the system since the Localism Act 2011, and the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework in 2012. 

“The reality is that the current planning system wasn’t designed seven decades ago”

There is no doubt that Whitehall has been creatively brainstorming. There are a catalogue of surprising and controversial suggestions within the white paper which have stimulated strong reactions and debate in the development industry.  The document is light on detail. To this end, the consultation, running for 12 weeks from 6 August should be very active. 

What are the key suggestions? 

Included within the initiatives are:

  • the introduction of zoning (where land could be zoned with growth areas, renewal areas and protected areas being identified in local plans).
  • changes to the way that our local plans are assessed, with the removal of the “test of soundness” where plans could alternatively be assessed against a single statutory "sustainable development test"
  • the duty to cooperate and five-year housing land supply requirement potentially being axed, with a separate consultation on proposed changes to the standard method for assessing local housing need.

The foundations of how planning decisions are currently made (with the development plan as a starting point) are also being challenged. The document states that the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) "would become the primary source of policies for development management; there would be no provision for the inclusion of generic development management policies which simply repeat national policy within local plans, such as protections for listed buildings..."

“Any initiative to improve the current planning process has to be welcomed and the white paper has some foundation-shaking ideas”. 

Other notable suggestions include the merger of CIL and s106 systems for securing developer infrastructure contributions and increasing the threshold for affordable homes contributions from ten homes to 40 or 50. This concern is potentially countered with a First Homes initiative for local people, key workers and first-time buyers at a 30 per cent discount through developer contributions in the short-term until transition to a new system. 

A radical transformation is needed, and possible. Any initiative to improve the current planning process has to be welcomed and the white paper has some foundation-shaking ideas. Whilst the planning system may be a 70-year-old behemoth, the age threshold for a state pension continues to rise under this government, and the current consultations do not indicate that enforced retirement of the planning system is an available option.

We in the public and private sectors will have to engage in the consultation process actively, embrace the forthcoming change in the system, and keep working to deliver better homes, places and sustainable communities. 

Brian Mullin is head of Marrons Planning, part of law firm Shakespeare Martineau

Photo l iStock


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