The English planning system is ‘no longer fit for human habitation’ according to the recently released government white paper Planning for the Future which lays out plans for the most radical reforms since WW2, aimed at removing red tape and making it easier to bring forwards development projects across the country. Head of property and construction, Annie Brafield considers the proposals.
I think you would probably be hard pushed to find anyone involved in the world of development that doesn’t have at least some frustrations with the planning system in this country. It is notoriously slow, expensive and known for putting obstacles in the way of actually getting developments on site with spades in the ground. So, replacing it with a system that is ‘simpler, clearer and quicker to navigate’ and one that promises to deliver results in ‘weeks and months rather than years and decades’ certainly sounds appealing.
A system that is not fit for purpose
The white paper highlights multiple areas where the current system fails. It doesn’t place an emphasis on good design; the process for negotiating developer contributions to affordable housing is complex and unclear; the Local Plan system is protracted and inefficient; it has lost public trust with people overwhelmingly saying they did not have confidence in their council to make the right choice; and perhaps most importantly, the system in its current form simply does not lead to enough homes being built to meet the current required levels of around 300,000 new homes per annum.
Adopted Local Plans, where they are currently in place, account for just 187,000 homes per year across England – which falls hugely short of the levels required but also of the 241,000 delivered in 2019. Persistent under-supply drives prices, making it harder for people to get onto the housing ladder – especially in those areas where it is most needed.
The impact of Covid-19
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, momentum in the housebuilding sector in particular was strong with output levels at a 30-year high. But with many housebuilders downing tools for a number of weeks during lockdown – despite government encouragement to keep Britain building – the number of new homes being delivered has stalled somewhat and with that comes pent-up demand and challenges to make up lost time.
The importance of the construction sector to the UK economy is undeniable – it accounts for some six per cent of total economic output annually and around 2.5 million people are employed in the industry, so it is no wonder that it is taking centre stage of the plans for post-Covid recovery. But are these ambitious proposals the answer to unlocking the planning system and getting more high-quality schemes on site more quickly?
A streamlined and digital-first system
The proposals outline a streamlined approach to planning, specifically with the role of Local Plans being simplified. By moving towards a Growth, Renewal and Protected set of criteria for identifying land for development, it is hoped that the time taken to achieve planning permission – particularly on larger sites – could be cut in half. This would potentially be good news for towns and cities considering sustainable urban extensions (SUE) or other large-scale development where the principle for development is already outlined.
The government has also outlined that Local Plans would set clear ‘rules’ rather than general policies for development with general development management policies set by central government. That would see Local Plans shortened with a greater focus on quality and how they can add value – alongside greater community engagement in their development.
The reforms would also see a welcome shift towards digital planning – something that is already being adopted by consultants across the board, especially given the Covid-19 restrictions which have seen public consultations and planning meetings moved online. Easily accessible, online mapping tools and easy-to-search functionality should make it clearer where can, can’t or might be able to see development.
This digital-first approach will see the planning system actively engage with the PropTech sector, ultimately bringing forward efficiencies and standardisation that is much-needed to demystify the process and deliver clarity for all involved parties. I have no doubt that most people involved in development would welcome a shorter, clearer and standardised approach.
Focus on good design
High-quality design and sustainability are not prioritised by the current planning system – or indeed many housebuilders due to the inevitable cost implications, but the reforms would look to address this. The report issued by the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission identifies that we have fallen short, so as we look to ‘build back better’, this is a welcome move.
Quite how any changes would support the move towards Net Zero isn’t yet clear, but we will undoubtedly see a greater emphasis placed on biodiversity net gain and more focus on creating ‘beautiful’ places for people to live. This will likely see developers asked to increase their environmental credentials for any proposed schemes and force a rethink about how to design schemes that not only deliver profits but ‘do good’ at the same time.
I would expect to see those developers proposing more ‘environmentally attractive’ schemes given an easier run through the planning system and reforms to the existing process for assessing environmental impacts but stricter rules about enhancement. Exactly what this means in practice, remains unclear – though the ‘fast-track for beauty’ concept eludes to the government’s thought process.
The white paper states that Homes England will lead the way, with high-quality design codes implemented and councils required to have design and placemaking officers to enforce higher standards – which will be necessary to ensure that developers deliver high-quality schemes.
If we genuinely want to see developers move towards designing attractive homes, which inevitably cost more to produce, legislation must require it. A balance must also be struck between building ‘quickly’ to deliver the required numbers of new homes and building ‘well’ in line with any design standards imposed.
A better deal for communities
As it stands, what exactly you can expect from a ‘developer contribution’ is wide and varied both in terms of what it will look like and value. The Community Infrastructure Levy and current system of obligations will be reformed, should the white paper be adopted.
A move away from lengthy negotiation of Section 106 agreements will be no doubt welcomed by the industry – and a more sensible approach to the delivery of affordable housing will hopefully provide increased clarity, though how that sits with the increased powers devolved to local authorities will yet to be seen.
Unlocking new homes – what next?
The reforms would see a ‘new nationally determined, binding housing requirement’ that local authorities would have to deliver through Local Plans – focussing on areas where affordability pressure is highest, preventing land supply acting as a barrier to housebuilding.
But will this top-down approach actually see more new homes delivered in the areas that need them the most? Possibly not. The requirement for homes appears heavily skewed to London and the South East, which will likely eat up a high proportion of the numbers laid out by central government, leaving more northern areas with potentially far less provision.
There are also questions around how sites become allocated within the new Growth zones – how much detail will planning authorities require to sign off sites for the ‘automatic’ planning permission identified? Will lesser sites with better quality and more detailed proposals be favoured over those which actually in practice would deliver higher quality development but less work has been done initially? What role will stakeholder engagement now play as land owners, promoters, planners and agents race to get their interests signed off first?
The Government aspires to see 300,000 homes built per annum and these reforms are intended to support that, speeding up construction but also ensuring that we ‘build back better’ with higher design standards and better community provision.
There is no doubt that the English planning system needs reform. It is complicated, lengthy and on the face of it, many of the reforms and proposed outcomes suggested in this white paper seem very appealing – but exactly what it might mean in practice poses more questions than answers at this stage.