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09/09/2020

The planning white paper is like a complex and confusing science fiction novel

Words:
Spaceship

David Vickery takes a close read of the Planning for the Future white paper and sees unanswered questions and subverted expectations at every turn

The Planning for the Future white paper is like being in a Iain M Banks science fiction novel. The one where the sentient space ship is called ‘Just Read The Instructions’ because of the complexity of military hardware and how it is often put into the hands of those who don't understand what they're using. The white paper is so complex, confusing and has so many unanswered questions that I doubt anyone knows how to use it.

Local plans are a case in point, and they start with central government-imposed housing need requirements. Unfortunately, the rows over the ‘mutated algorithms’ of the current housing needs methodology – with accusations of too much housing in the South – is not a good omen. With the unlamented duty to cooperate abolished, how will severely constrained local planning authorities, especially in the South, have their housing need redistributed? I can’t see neighbouring authorities agreeing a redistribution amongst themselves given the duty to co-operate track record.

“I foresee numerous legal challenges that this is a top-down, centralised command process with no community consultation”

I foresee numerous legal challenges that this is a top-down, centralised command process with no community consultation, which will be the subject of unseen and intense political lobbying and horse trading. Trust in, and the credibility of, the planning system will be destroyed.

There needs to be transparency in the housing numbers process and democratic accountability. The best way is to bring back strategic regional planning in some shape or form. Commentators have had plenty of ideas as to how this could be done.

It is unclear how deliverability and housing provision over a specified time period will be assessed, both for ‘reserve sites’ and for local plans generally. How do you assess how many units have been allocated in order to meet the housing requirement? Deliverability, which should include viability and build-out rates, is essential for certainty and for good planning.

The ‘growth’, ‘renewal’ and ‘protected’ categories are not true zoning – they are just a formalisation of what already happens or could happen. And they add another layer of complexity along with the associated masterplans and design codes necessary to provide a permission in principle. How is this simpler and clearer? This is not a whole new, rebuilt planning system as claimed. And on design codes, what does “locally popular” mean? Who judges that? Focus groups? Referendums? The mayor?

“Very few local planning authorities have the staff, expertise and financial resources to produce a local plan of this complexity within 30 months – and then do it all again five years later”

The potential sites in a plan will still be a ‘beauty contest’ led by developers and landowners. The white paper suggests that site promoters provide the masterplans and design codes. However, after the recent press outcry about developers paying local planning authorities to produce supplementary planning documents, this raises questions of fairness, conflicts of interest, and democratic accountability.

After an initial ‘Any thoughts?’ exercise, community engagement only meaningfully starts 18 months into the 30-month process, well after key decisions on sites have been made, the plan submitted, and the local planning authority has been talking for months with the developers. This is, in effect, a fait accompli. Local people will feel cheated and stitched-up, and will reach for their lawyers. And what does a local planning authority do if there is then a real and unexpected fundamental objection? Withdraw?

The assessment of the soundness of a plan is unclear. The sustainable development test will need careful definition. It is all things to all men. Does it include climate change issues and beauty? It should.

Very few local planning authorities have the staff, expertise and financial resources to produce a local plan of this complexity within 30 months – and then do it all again five years later. I have similar concerns whether the Planning Inspectorate’s resources can cope with so many plans so quickly. 

Digitalising local plans will be more intricate and time consuming for local planning authorities than assumed. Computerisation projects, especially in the health area, have historically taken longer than planned, cost more than budgeted, and some have then been abandoned. The time allowed for plan production looks to be too short.

Given the fact that the local plan is legally the be-all-and-end-all, examinations will be bitterly fought by objectors due to the lack of consultation chances later. This will result in hearing sessions where objectors, alternative (but not allocated) site promoters, and the plan-makers will argue the merits of individual allocations and their parameters. Inevitably it will increase examination times. And yet more lawyers will be involved by developers.

“I see appeals going up, not down, because of the rules-based inflexibility and “set in stone” nature of local plans”

Moreover, the disappointed developers will also submit planning applications on their left-out sites with inevitable appeals. And allocated developers will submit applications, and more appeals, to increase or decrease densities, or to alter the mix of uses, or to alter design codes, or to accommodate changes in circumstances. I see appeals going up, not down, because of the rules-based inflexibility and “set in stone” nature of local plans.

More than 50 per cent of local planning authorities do not have an up-to-date local plan. Past experience shows that many of these authorities will be reluctant to start a plan now. They will wait for the current uncertainties to be resolved and for the primary and secondary legislation and housing numbers to be produced. Inevitably, local planning will come to a slow, confused halt. Housebuilding will be delayed.

Don’t expect a quick resolution of these questions. There is no way the government can get through all this by its projected date of 2024, especially with Brexit and Covid-19 in the way.

There are too many known unknowns. So there are three words I associate with the white paper: confusion; complexity; delays.

David Vickery is a former senior planning inspector who spent many years examining and advising local planning authorities on local plans

Photo | Shutterstock

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