Its been an interesting couple of days for planners (when isn’t it though?) with The Sunday Times revealing that the Prime Minister’s Chief Adviser has turned his attentions to reforming the planning system whilst The Policy Exchange published “Planning Anew”, a series of essays on planning reform from leading lights such as Bridgett Rosewell, Robert Adam, David Rudlin together with a number of specialists across property, affordable housing, academia and delivery bodies.
Hasn’t every change to the planning system recently been about radical reform to unlock the housing market but actually turn out to be further permitted development / prior approvals offering up to 500m2 of something subject to some clear and other obscure criteria, or 465m2, but with the scope for may be 800+m2 of something else with slightly different criteria, each representing a golden opportunity for small sectors of the economy, each fought over by the Council’s solicitors to limit the “damage” of a non-policy compliant outcome?
Further changes to permitted development flexibility in the high street, an absolute no brainer surely? I can’t recall my last visit to the high street. Well actually I can, it was to do a planning appraisal on a key town centre store that went into administration pre-COVID, so we all knew the high street needed a radical re-think in terms of its future roles in our lives. This isn’t rocket science, its more complicated than that.
One problem with the ever changing permitted development regime is that someone in MHCLG will now have to draft provisions to unlock the right alternative uses for the high street of the future and avoid a further round of interpretation about extent, gross internal area and sub-division of a planning unit.
Wouldn’t it be better to simply scrap the prior approval element and simply allow changes of use between retail, commercial leisure and business uses (anything else?) as a right and simply let the market resolve how it responds to our desire to create or re-create lively and attractive places where we want to go but not necessarily just for a linked shopping trip?
So far, so good, what about the introduction of Development Corporations and the possible removal of the planning committee? I can only imagine the raft of barristers seeking to re-train at short notice. Isn’t this however another of the over-reactions to the current state of planning we have also seen repeated too often in the past?
In 2010 we scrapped the “hated and unaccountable” Regional Spatial Strategies allowing every planning authority to be tied up forever in defining objectively assessed need. The solution would be localism and neighbourhood plans, enabling community to take ownership of delivering and unlocking growth, trust the communities to know where development should go. Well as 10 years of neighbourhood plans with a few notable exceptions show, development over and above the minimum allowable should ideally go somewhere else.
As Brigitte Rosewell suggests in her Planning Anew article “A plan must not become a prescription. A successful plan sets parameters but can respond to changing circumstances and engage with all stakeholders. The problem with the Plan is to accept that it is not a prescription but rather a vision. The problem with planning is to accept that it is a method for resolving tensions and a framework. As so often in policy, language gets in the way.”
Generally no one can fault the Local Plan’s spatial vision and objectives, its just that somewhere in the 15 criteria with any one policy there is something the planning officer can trip you up with, but this is about mind set, confidence and skills. Does it need to be replaced with a Development Corporation and Zoning concept?
The Development Corporation and Zoning approaches were both flagged in the 2019 consultation, but we do not know whether they become a targeted approach or the default across the board? Having seen State Planning and Zoning work in places like Australia it is an impressive way to roll out large scale and rapid growth, but how do we get there and is large scale growth what we need or do we rather need a better understanding about how we manage and support the new challenges to high streets, business space change and housing delivery and develop the confidence to take the community with us?
What none of the announcements deals with however is how we move as a profession from a reactive to a positive culture. Development Corporations are unlikely to deliver world class places if we simply see individuals moving from planning authorities into development corporations.
As for the resources, who will draft the framework for the Development Corporation and the Zoning Regulatory Documents? (Which incidentally do provide certainty but often at the cost of flexibility.)
Ultimately, whatever the announcements changing one broken system into another will not get to the root cause of housing under supply, the impacts of land value upon housing value and the dearth of experienced, skilled and confident staff working within planning. Rather we need to recognise that a positive planning profession working with enlightened councillors can deliver great places and re-generation almost regardless of the particular structure and wording of the T&CP (GPD)O 2015 (as amended).