Planning for a better future?

By - World Infrastructure Journal

"A relic from the middle of the 20th century – outdated and ineffective" was the verdict given to the planning system within the latest ‘Planning for a Better Future’ paper released by the Government earlier this year. The consultation, which closed to feedback at the end of October, has set itself the grand aim of "radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War" - a change which many have welcomed and hope it will improve an increasingly convoluted process.

The UK planning system has long been a contentious subject. For those regularly working within it (or even have brief contact with it), the planning system has become a frustrating symbol of bureaucracy, confusion, and delay. Even more commonly, has it become a common scapegoat of the ever-looming housing crisis faced in large swathes of the country. It is now categorised as a barrier to the effective change needed to provide affordable housing for all.

Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, echos this sentiment, proposing an overhaul of the current system which is plagued with problems. Among the many failings identified within the paper, the most prominent are: the system's significant complexity which tends to benefit larger developers, discretionary rather than rules-based nature, large delays, and lack of trust in the system. With such condemnation of the current system, why has reform taken so long to come?

What's changing?

The new design has been structured into three pillars – planning for development, planning for beautiful and sustainable places, and planning for infrastructure and connected places.

Broadly, these measures are aimed at making planning a transparent and community-led system that should speed up design-focused and sustainable developments across the country through digitization and streamlining. However, the 84-page document showed that the process to get there will not be as simple.

Some of the more specific measures include changing the role of the local plan, which is currently created by local authorities to set out the objectives, strategies and planning obligations that all developments in the area must adhere to. However, these are regularly outdated, with more than half of local authorities having not produced an up-to-date document. Developers must also follow wider authority jurisdictions and national legislation. This is a convoluted and confusing process that can be off-putting, especially to those new to the planning system.

Under the new proposals, the Government will set out development management policies nationally with local plans identifying site and area-specific requirements. These will land into three different categories; ‘growth’ which has been identified as developable land and will automatically be given planning permission, ‘renewal’ land where permission is granted in principle subject to basic checks, and ‘protected’ land which cannot be developed upon.

With a focus on ‘digitization,’ the planning reforms are aimed at giving communities more say over the direction of their local areas by using technology to make it easier for citizens to get involved in creating these plans and setting the direction. While this democratic process seems like a positive step towards better place-making that fits the needs of residents, many have suggested that digital-accessibility wasn’t the main reason for minimal participation. Instead, this is attributed to a general lack of interest in the process.

The Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) and s106 agreements which set local requirements (e.g. 50 per cent of the labour must be from the area) and raise revenue (in theory) for local authorities, are also in for a shake-up. Under the new plan set out in the consultation, these will instead be combined into a single Infrastructure Levy which should hopefully speed up and streamline the current lengthy process as well as potentially raise more revenue that local authorities will have more control over.

A good plan?

As expected, the planning reforms have been met by significant debate. While all are grateful the planning system is finally being looked at, not all believe this is the right direction of travel. President of the Royal Institute of British Architects Alan Jones even went as far as saying that if these policies come to fruition, it will create the "next generation of slum housing".

It is feared that the automatic planning permission granted within the ‘growth’ category, regardless of the type of development, could end up creating unsuitable housing. Labour for the London Borough of Barnet has expressed concerns that this could cause massive overdevelopment of low-quality or completely unaffordable housing within the borough which local residents do not want.

Similarly, the Town and Country Planning Association, stated that these new proposals "will undermine democratic controls, reduce the quality of new development and waste an important opportunity to build safer, healthier, more equal, and more environmentally sustainable places".

At a time where the realms of home, work and social life have all become one, it is more important than ever to have a secure and welcoming place to call home – at an affordable price. All of this is dependent on the freedoms and limits of the planning process.

The success of these reforms has become more important than ever. While it is unknown when the response paper will be released, it can only be hoped that, in these challenging times, we really will be planning for a better future.

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