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Comment: What the new planning proposals mean for local developments

Yesterday’s announcement of sweeping changes to the planning system to speed up house building and remove blockages from the planning system will undoubtedly hit opposition among some communities and local councillors but many who have worked within this sector will understand what it is trying to achieve.

Overcoming inherent NIMBY-ism

At its heart, the concept of speeding up decision making by setting centralised goals, asking local authorities to pre-determine macro-level zones of development and protection, and then removing a degree of micro-level decision-making from their hands, has some merits. Albeit it does seem a little counter-intuitive for a theoretically pro-local Conservative government and is likely to put them on a collision course with some of their leafier homelands.

It is undoubtedly true that we’ve been facing a housing crisis for some time, and that the existing planning system does very little to resolve, and quite a lot to exacerbate this. Despite recognising the need to build more homes, a widely held not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY) attitude amongst communities and local councillors has tended to shunt this problem from place to place without any ultimate solution.

The concept of providing decision making power and design input to local communities is a noble one and has been part of national planning guidelines and local authority policy documents since the early 2000s. It is intended to give extra kudos to developers that consult with the impacted community and to ensure that locally elected councillors can prevent those developers from riding roughshod by having final say at a planning committee vote.

The problem, of course, is that given the choice, very few people want to see new developments in their neighbourhood. Whether citing concerns over the havoc of the construction process, increased traffic created by hundreds of new residents, the coping potential of public services, or simply a desire to ‘keep things as they are’, most communities would rather not see new homes built near them. As such, we’ve fallen down a chasm between the need to increase housing supply and the need to satisfy local voters that would arguably prefer to see it decline.

In such a situation, the relevant ward councillors and their colleagues on the planning committee are loathed to take the difficult but necessary path of approving developments that their voters oppose, especially when an election is approaching. The fact that many local authorities elect in ‘thirds’, meaning an election almost every year, and that some councillors may have won office by literally a handful of votes, only adds to this dilemma. Well organised local residents’ groups, who regularly put up their own candidates at such elections, can hold councillors to ransom over planning decisions. I’ve seen entire councils overhauled overnight as a result of backing the wrong horse.

As such, there’s always been a tendency towards the sometimes exaggerated concerns of local communities to be realised by the council voting against developments – occasionally with good reason, but more often than not without good cause. This is evidenced by the number of times these decisions are overturned at appeal, often resulting in the council having to pay costs – but that is never reported back to residents, and the councillors can be viewed to have done their best.

Blockage, delay and a lack of housing supply results. It might seem harsh to remove a degree of localised power in order to address this, but it may be the only way to resolve the problem.

Pre-emptive Zoning

The new proposals seek to encourage local authorities, in consultation with their communities, to outline specific zones for development or protection within local plans, and then to step back from the process in some regard and allow developers to progress as long as they have met the relevant standards.

There will be some debate over what these standards should be and it will be important to ensure integration and assimilation with other policy areas, particularly energy. Developers have consistently failed to provide the facilities needed for the anticipated electric vehicle revolution or wider lower-carbon or renewable options, which this country will need if it is to reach it’s zero carbon goals.

Whilst the concept of giving protected status to the Green Belt is always politically astute, it can foster misunderstandings which cause headaches further down the line. In most peoples’ minds ‘green belt’ has become interchangeable with ‘green space’ but they’re not the same thing. There’s plenty of green space which is not within the green belt but needs protecting. Equally, there are many brownfield sites inside the green belt which need redevelopment. An insistence on an artificial boundary without recognising these nuances will only add extra pressure and inflate property prices. That’s why it’s wise to allow ‘Protection Zones’ within urban areas but we also need to see consideration of ‘Growth Zones’ within the green belt where necessary.

It feels like the terminology in the proposals is a little clumsy – ‘Growth Zones’ include redeveloping brownfield sites whilst ‘Renewal Zones’ can be extensions to existing urban areas. Many might argue that redevelopment (which most would describe as renewal) should be given priority over new building (which could be described as growth), so in many ways it feels like there could be more categories with a greater degree of preference.

In circumstances where land can be at a premium and locals want to retain their building footprint, it seems right to place additional focus on projects that help to regenerate brownfield sites or turn unused commercial blocks into residential properties. Many urban areas have multiple examples of disused offices and deserted warehouses which left as they are can make the area less appealing and attract antisocial behaviour.

Yet many towns and cities – particularly in the northern belt that was home to the Industrial Revolution – have shown great innovation in adapting historic buildings to modern requirements with cultural charm. If the new planning regime is to be successful with local communities as well as economically viable to developers and local authorities, we have to get beyond the default of constantly shifting our centres by abandoning one neighbourhood and building a new one every decade or so, leaving a trail of empty buildings in its wake.

This focus on retaining rather than moving designated centres, designed to encourage footfall and increase visitor numbers through a mix of retail, entertainment and office workplaces, supported by good public transport links and ideally free parking, is something which local authorities need to become far more firm on and make central to their local plans.

Developing Local Plans … again

Indeed, one would like to think this sort of issue would be resolved by the proposed ‘Local Plans’ but these have not always settled the issue before. The reality is that we’ve had Local Plans and regional targets for decades, and I’m unconvinced that constantly revisiting and revising these is either a good use of local authority time nor helps to foster the sense of certainty that private investors require. Local communities have also always been given the opportunity to take part in the shaping of these plans, although realistically very few do. But the proposals around this are nothing new, it’s simply front-ending the consultation process.

The issue is not the presence of the plans and targets themselves, but the adherence to them and the associated incentives and penalties. Planning Committee members making localised decisions have traditionally felt too far removed from these, making it very easy for them to pass the buck and avoid personal retribution. A Conservative Government may insist that more houses need building within a particular area, but what is the incentive for an embattled Labour Councillor on a slim majority to vote for that when their local residents are opposed to a given project? Hence the move towards taking this out of their hands, but it needs to be fully supported by a mix of carrot and stick.

Ensuring community involvement

The abandoning of ‘Section 106’ agreements which allowed developers to contribute to local community projects – not just supporting affordable homes but also funding popular facilities such as parks, playgrounds and community centres – in favour of a single infrastructure levy might seem like a sensible simplification but could leave the communities most impacted by developments out of pocket. In recent decades, the Section 106 contributions could come in a variety of forms and were a vital part of the consultation and negotiation process with local residents, which would reveal localised needs as opposed to national generalisations. It seems odd that a Government seeking to encourage devolved decision making would centralise this existing positive tool.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick’s comment that we want to move away from ‘notices on lampposts’ to a more digital approach is largely reiterating an existing trend, but the truth we need both. Any developer worth their salt would already make their proposals and consultation process as accessible as possible through a combination of ‘old-school’ letter and leaflet drops, public events and newspaper adverts as well as the more modern approach of interactive websites, social media and digital advertising. Whilst greater focus on the latter increases accessibility for many, it’s vital to remember that communities are diverse and that many require the first-hand opportunity to view physical plans and speak to members of the project team.

Does the repackaging work?

The proposals as they have been set out – and they are only proposals open to consultation at this stage – offer some potential to streamline the planning process by front-loading decision making and aiming to remove NIMBY-ism as a micro-level. Frankly, beyond this move towards near-automatic approval for developments within pre-approved zones, the rest of the white paper is largely repackaging and shifting focus of measures that have been in place since the Blair years.

The Labour Party initially dismissed it as a ‘developers charter’ and it does fall into the trap of appearing to take power away from local communities over individual decisions, but many who have worked close to the process would argue that it needs doing. If local authorities want to retain community involvement, they’ll have to work much harder at engaging them in the Local Plan portion of the process. It will be a tough sell at local level and some Conservative MPs may kick back on behalf of their councillors, but I’d expect it to sail through without much change. Whether it will work on the ground and solve the decades-old problem of housing supply is another question.

Richard Royal is a political consultant who has specialised in managing stakeholder engagement for planning projects including major housebuilders, retailers, renewable energy, ports and airports.

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