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Planning for the Future – Planning for exclusion

At the beginning of August, the Government announced their new Government White Paper: “Planning for the Future.” Read the White Paper here.

The Conservative government’s proposals to reform and speed up planning have sparked controversy and concern across the country. The plans in the white paper failed to address the current issues present in the planning system and threaten to remove local decision making and accountability. The reforms will deprive local communities of the ability to define the area they live in and know best. Excluding the public from the planning process isn’t progress.

The consultation

This consultation closes at 11:45pm on 29 October 2020. I would urge everybody to respond and defend your right to be heard in the planning process and the other details within the paper.

Responses to the ‘Planning for the future’ White Paper can be made online here.

My own summary of the Government’s ‘Planning for the future’ White Paper is below:

Overly centralised…

The scrapping of s106 agreements and Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) for a massively centralise scheme represents a backward step.

s106 agreements are a legal agreement between councils and developers. They have been extensively used to secure affordable housing and infrastructure improvements to roads and schools. S106 have been the only way affordable housing has been delivered for a long time. Scrapping that won’t help deliver the affordable homes to rent and buy that we all need.

CIL is designed to reward communities for having housing by charging developers a predefined rate per square foot. This money then gets spent in the area impacted by the housing to improve the infrastructure of that area. CIL money can only be spent on infrastructure. It can’t be spent on delivering affordable housing.

We already have issues where Shropshire Council has tried to centralise CIL for their own benefit and not for the benefit of communities that have had housing. Now the Government wants to strip that same money away to a central pot that Councils bid for. That will mean money will leave the area entirely. The Government will spend it in areas of the country. Knowing Shropshire Council success at bidding then the money will be unlikely to return. Local communities will have all of the pain of new houses without any of the gains.

…and overly simplified

Existing local plans, including the current draft out for consultation, would be scrapped. Shropshire Council would zone all land. Public participation would be limited to the design brief stage.

In the new system local areas will develop plans for land to be designated into three categories:

  • Growth areas will back development, with development approved at the same time plans are prepared, meaning new homes, schools, shops and business space can be built quickly and efficiently, as long as local design standards are met. Outline Planning permission is preapproved as soon as the land is zoned in a plan. There will be no community consultation in any planning application.
  • Renewal areas will be suitable for some development – where it is high-quality in a way which meets design and other prior approval requirements the process will be quicker. The Council will set out beforehand what is acceptable. Anything that matches that will also be preapproved. If not, developments will need planning approval in the usual way.
  • Protected areas will be just that – development will be restricted to carry on protecting our treasured heritage like Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and National Parks.

The devil is in the details. This is a very simple way of zoning land. Zoning has some merit. However, there will have to be 100s of regulations to underpin that. To say that framework is simpler is absurd. The headline categories are simple but the detail won’t be. A more granular approach will fit the local need would be better. If there aren’t subcategories to cover exception sites and other needed variations in the framework, then we won’t speed things up or deliver the affordable homes we need.

Risks posed by zoning

Shropshire Council will have to allocate every piece of land to one of these categories. The Government will decide the housing numbers required not Shropshire Council. Shropshire Council will just allocate the land. Shropshire Council’s draft local plan has an overly ambitious and undeliverable housing target of 30,800. This is larger than the Government’s own assessment of need. The risk is that these numbers get baked in and a future government allocation goes on top.

Shropshire Councils allocation already poses a high risk that any under-delivery means any sites can get approval at appeal. We have already seen that when Shropshire Council didn’t have a 5-year land supply and lots of uncontrolled development happened in the county – including in our area. West Felton has been particularly poorly served by Shropshire Council’s inability to control planning. The risk the White Paper poses is a compounding of all of these factors.

Following their Strategic Land Availability Assessment (SLAA) in 2014 & 2018 for the current local plan review, many sites were submitted for inclusion but weren’t included in the draft plan. Many of those sites were rated as land with long-term housing potential. The list grew considerably in 2018. See Residential Conclusion Map. The risk the White Paper now poses is that all of the long-term sites get zoned as growth areas and that the public will have no say on any of that. The public had no say in the assessment of sites in the SLAA.

Two sites were rejected in Park Hall in the SLAA but have been allocated in the local plan. An important lesson given the proposals in the ‘Planning for the Future’ White Paper. With a centralised zonal approach the yellow sites will be in the box seat to be graded as Growth Areas.

Sustainability & Environmental impact undermined

Presently individual sites have to undergo some sustainability and environmental impact assessment at several stages through the planning process. The ‘Planning for the Future’ white paper proposes to slim all of this down and bundle into a broad simplified assesment at the Local Plan stage.

Local Plans would be subject to a single statutory “sustainable development” test, replacing the existing tests of soundness. The duty to co-operate would be binned.  There would be no Sustainability Appraisal and instead, this would be replaced by a simplified process for assessing the environmental impact of the whole local plan.

However, every site is different. Each site will have different needs, sustainability issues and environmental impacts that may all need supporting or mitigating. How will a development impact local flooding? How will it impact local biodiversity? How close are local amenities to support housing growth? What is the local housing need? All of these important questions for development won’t get asked.

Outline planning permission will be automatically granted for Growth areas and for ‘Renewal’ areas (within limits). Simplifying environmental checks raises some serious issues. Vulnerable wildlife does not only exist in SSSIs or AONBs. Critical small habitats may fall through the net of a simplified process and at risk of being destroyed as part of ‘Growth’ or ‘Renewal’ areas.

More haste, less speed

The Government argues that houses aren’t being built fast enough to meet demand. They maintain that speeding up the planning process is the solution. As I pointed out in my Top 10 reasons why we have a housing crisis (Reason 10) this isn’t the case. Nationally, nine in 10 planning applications are approved by councils, while more than a million homes given planning permission in the last decade, which have not yet been built. Only 60% of granted planning permissions are being built.

To suggest that planning is a barrier to house building is absurd!

Top 10 reasons why we have a housing crisis. 10) poor completion rates
Graph: planning permissions and growing completion gap - growing for 10 years
The gap between granted planning permissions and actually complete planning permissions has been growing steadily for 10 years.

Graph: Planning permissions completed since 2009/10 with trend line
The trend over the last decade has been for more developments to be given permission.
Completions have been in steady decline. Only 60% of granted planning permissions get built.

The ‘planning for the future’ reforms have been roundly criticised by:

CPRE

The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) raised queries about elements of the proposals, including the risks of community voices being lost in the process. 

‘The key acid test for the planning reforms is community involvement and on first reading, it’s still not clear how this will work under a zoning system.
‘we also need robust legal guarantees that the public are consulted regarding new development.’

Tom Fyans, CPRE deputy chief executive

RIBA

The Royal Institute for British Architects called the proposals ‘shameful and which will do almost nothing to guarantee delivery of affordable, well-designed and sustainable homes’. RIBA also said that proposals could lead to the next generation of slum housing.   

’We urgently need a broad mix of affordable, age-friendly and sustainable housing– but it looks as though this so-called ”planning revolution” will deliver the opposite.
’Only two weeks ago the government saw fit to extend Permitted Development regulations, contrary to its own experts and research, which have made clear the damaging consequences. The government has missed a huge opportunity to make changes to the planning system for the better.’

RIBA President Alan Jones

Shelter

’Instead of getting England building faster, major changes to the planning system could actually slow us down.
’Housebuilders risk facing uncertainty as they scramble to understand the new system and what it means for their plans – just as the construction industry is facing a huge economic downturn. It could inadvertently put the frighteners on developers building new homes.
’Planning permission is not what is stopping England from getting high-quality, genuinely affordable homes built – a lack of government investment is.’

Polly Neate, chief executive, Shelter

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