A Shift to a Zoning and Subdivision System for Brownfield is the big News in Productivity Plan

One of the main themes of this blog over the last two years (fpr example here , here, here, herehere,  here, here and here)  is that we are and we should be seeing a shift to a zoning and subdivision based system in England (dont say we didnt predict this) – this is for two reasons

1) Such systems are the key reason why other comparative counties can and do deliver more housing than we – in particular from custom build -as they are much better enable to deal with development at scale.  Our system is perfect for odd houses here and there but not for the regime change in numbers we need.

2) we simply dont have the number of planners to deliver the number of houses we need done the labour intensive way – e.g. small sites here and there through neighbourhood plans etc. Especially we the planned reduction in public sector planning staff – from severely overstreached to beyond breaking point.

The logic will be to extend this from brownfield to greenfield as the cheap to develop greenfield sites will rapidly run out and the public spending to unlock tough brownfield sites though welcome and a reversal of the previous ‘rapid release of greenfield sites first’ approach of the NPPF is only a tiny fraction of what is needed.

Before we deal in detail with this lets look first at the changes that dont require legislation (or only monor amendments) and are just productivity pussying around.

9.9 Over the previous Parliament, the government removed top-down regional strategies and placed local authorities at the forefront of deciding how to meet the need for housing through their local plans.

9.10 It is vital that local authorities use these powers to put in place local plans that set the framework for the homes and jobs local people need. The government will take further action to ensure that local authorities put local plans in place by a set deadline to be confirmed by summer recess. The government will publish league tables, setting out local authorities’ progress on providing a plan for the jobs and homes needed locally. Where they are not, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will intervene for those local authorities that do not produce them, to arrange for local plans to be written, in consultation with local people.

Greg Clark rather stupidly deleted the local plans database.  That didn’t last long did it.  The ability for the SoS to intervene is already in legislation.  The aim here like special measures in DC is to threaten and hopefully not have to intervene, but a threat never enacted is no threat at all.  As i’ve said ill see it when I believe it when Greg Clarke allocates the Gypsy and Traveller Sites needed in two of the slowest local plans – Epping Forest and Brentwood, and when he approves a plan which includes a Garden City of a needed sub regional size.  Then the SoS will need to cooperate with himself and finally we will be back to Strategic Planning.

The government will also take steps to ensure that local plans are more responsive to local needs. The government will bring forward proposals to significantly streamline the length and process of local plans, helping to speed up the process of implementing or amending a plan.

None of this requires primary legislation.  The process is already short a single stage – the real problem however is the inability of lpas to pass the hurdle of plans meeting OAN.  This is a more systemic problem than process and the productivity plan seems to do nothing to ensure that plans are submitted that meet OAN in full.  Though plans are too long the length issue is a red herring as there is no real correlation between length and spped.  History has shown that Brakers ’20 or 30′ page plan was a red herring and undeliverable.  Still no reason to see a return to 200 page plus plans.  The plan hints at a more streamlined process for amending plans.  This again is difficult as plans in primary legislation have to be sound as a whole and the single thing that dates plans most is OAN.

The government will also bring forward proposals to improve cooperation between local authorities. The National Planning Policy Framework is clear that local authorities should look to meet their housing need, as far as is possible within constraints. Where they cannot meet their need in full, they should cooperate with other local authorities to do so. The government will strengthen guidance to improve the operation of the duty to cooperate on key housing and planning issues, to ensure that housing and infrastructure needs are identified and planned for.

Im reminded of the SNL sketch where Hilary Clinton announces her campaign slogan as ‘you will vote for me’  here Clark’s is ‘will cooperate’  rats please stop fighting in the sack please. Stregthening guidance again is pussyfooting around the real problem – lack of larger than local planning of overspill objectively assessed need around large cities with Green Belts.

Areas around commuter transport hubs offer significant potential for new homes. The government will work with mayors in London and across the country to use new powers in the Devolution Bill to use development corporations to deliver higher-density development in designated areas. The government will consider how policy can support higher density housing around key commuter hubs. The government will also consider how national policy and guidance can ensure that unneeded commercial land can be released for housing.

This is already policy in terms of density and releasing uneeded commercial land.  The real issue is when where and how compared to other options.  Again pussy footing around.  If the government really wants a strategy based on smart growth around transport hubs as the principle then:

1) The government should amend the NPPF to make support Smart Growth.  Previously it rejected this on the now discredited and politically unacceptable assumption that mass growth around villages would be the preferred new housing vector.

2) It needs massive support for CPOs and enabling infrastructure – as well as of course means of land value capture

3) Its not enough we need Greenfield sites too so why not support high density sites around stations here where brownfield sites are insufficient?

4) There is a name for joining up housing and transport around a full network of a city – strategic planning – again a slow creep back by a government that wont admit it made a disastrous mistake in scrapping strategic planning.

If Greg Clark or the Treasury want to know how to make a Z&S system work in legislation and practice you can call me, otherwise spend three years wasting time.  The same hourly rate as your economic competitors of course.


Evidence suggests that delays in processing planning applications may be a significant factor preventing housing supply from responding to upturns in the market.

Significant progress has been made, with the proportion of major applications dealt with on time rising.  The government wants to see further progress, with all planning decisions made on time. This is particularly important for SMEs. The government will therefore:

-legislate to allow major infrastructure projects with an element of housing to apply through the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Regime (NSIP)

Makes perfect sense depends though on how laarge ‘element’ is.

– tighten the planning performance regime, so that local authorities making 50% or fewer of decisions on time are at risk of designation

-legislate to extend the performance regime to minor applications, so that local authorities processing those applications too slowly are at risk of designation

Small beer – though the current regime provided a perverse incentive to slown down small applications in favour of large ones.

introduce a fast-track certificate process for establishing the principle of development for minor development proposals, and significantly tighten the ‘planning guarantee’ for minor applications

How will this be different from applying for outline consent?

repeat its successful target from the previous Parliament to reduce net regulation on housebuilders. The government does not intend to proceed with the zero carbon Allowable Solutions carbon offsetting scheme, or the proposed 2016 increase in on-site energy efficiency standards, but will keep energy efficiency standards under review, recognising that existing measures to increase energy efficiency of new buildings should be allowed time to become established

Big stuff – as feared allowable solutions is scrapped and with it the zero carbon target.  How dumb after many authorities took years putting in place the allowable solutions infrastructure.  Why biodiversity offsetting and not carbon offsetting.  Presumably zero carbon is now of no importance.

introduce a dispute resolution mechanism for section 106 agreements, to speed up negotiations and allow housing starts to proceed more quickly


More devolved planning powers

All good stuff and as predicted however


As the Mayor’s housing strategy set out, any increase in housing supply in London will be overwhelmingly brownfield development, and is likely to involve increasing densities.

Helping London to ‘build up’ in this way will reduce the need to ‘build out’, helping to provide homes for Londoners while protecting the countryside. Planning processes can create unnecessary burdens for proposals seeking to increase density on brownfield land.

The government is keen to support the Mayor’s aims, where there is local consent. The government will therefore work with the Mayor of London to bring forward proposals to remove the need for planning permission for upwards extensions for a limited number of stories up to the height of an adjoining building, where neighbouring residents do not object. In cases where objections are received, the application will be considered in the normal way, focussed on the impact on the amenity to neighbours.


Nothing focussed on design then. From mega extensions to mega roof extensions. Think about it all of London like Stamford Hill – is that really a good example.

The quality of london’s environment is very large part depends on the quality of its roofscape.  Its a disaster in areas like Fulham and Stamford Hill where local policy has been lax.  Try it for a few years and it will be swiftly revoked.  Its not just neighbours that see monstrous roof extensions but everyone on the street. This is a shanty town approach to planning a great city.

Starter Homes

Mostly as predicted given the exception sites approach has been a huge flop as predicted.  Of course they will eat into real affordable housing delivery.

So the real meat

The government is committed to an urban planning revolution on brownfield sites, including funding to provide infrastructure, strong local leadership to shape development and assemble sites, and the removal of unnecessary planning obstacles.

Previous studies have found that the country’s planning system – where development proposals require individual planning permission and are subject to detailed and discretionary scrutiny – can create the sort of “slow, expensive and uncertain process” that reduces the appetite to build.

The government is clear on the need to promote use of brownfield land, and will remove all unnecessary obstacles to its re-development, including these sorts of planning obstacles.

The government has already committed to legislating for statutory registers of brownfield land suitable for housing in England. The government will go further by legislating to grant automatic permission in principle on brownfield sites identified on those registers, subject to the approval of a limited number of technical details.

On brownfield sites, this will give England a ‘zonal’ system, like those seen in many other countries, reducing unnecessary delay and uncertainty for brownfield development.

In the spring, the government consulted on reforms to bring forward more brownfield land for development by making the compulsory purchase regime clearer, faster and fairer for all parties. This first round of reforms will be introduced through legislation in this session of Parliament. A number of additional proposals have been received from that consultation; the government is considering the case for these additional compulsory purchase reforms to further modernise the system, and will bring forward proposals in the autumn. These will allow local authorities and others to drive forward and shape brownfield development, and will not alter the principle of Secretary of State sign-off on compulsory purchase orders.

I dont think the government really gets what it takes it make a zoning and subdivision (Z&S) system work.  I can speak from authority on this as I am one of the very few English planner to work under both the DC and Z&S systems. Indeed as we speak I am PMing the masterplan and finalising the preliminary consent application for a brownfield site for around 270,000 people in a country with a Z&S system.  Indeed my day job is to speak to ministers at high level in such countries about improving delivery and bring forward key projects that have been stalled for years.

The keys steps in a Z&S system are as follows.  Firstly you need a plan that zones.  You can have a zoning change without a plan but in a democratic country you are likely to get bogged down in legal challenges over whether this amounts to unlawful spot zoning.  So the key is getting the zoning plans in place.

A good zoning plan must do three things

1) be clear on the amount and use of development allowed. Typically floorsapce area ratio (FAR) or some such is used.  This needs to be set and regulated by transport models and above all by a transport strategy that minimises unnecessary use of the car.  Global experience suggests that without this a build to the sky policy results in total urban dystopia.

2) Focus of form and illustrative plan, and mix, rather than Council of Athens Style Euclidean Zoning separation. If any English planner needs to look up illustrative plan, the council of Athens of Euclidean zoning the they cant call themselves a planner and the planning school that taught them so be immediately certificated.  You have made dc bureaucrats not planners.

3) You need a strong system to ensure that submitted proposals comply with the plan and dont violate the assumptions of the zoning plan on issues such as traffic and infra capacity.  Schemes need to work in conjuntion with the cumulative impact of other schemes in cities undergoing major change.  This isnt just a limited number of technical details its all about planning specifically masterplanning. Except in those third world countries where plans are just ignored and we get favella quality schemes or monstrous out of place Megaprojects or both, universally Z&S regimes require some form of preliminary concept approval of a masterplan.  These show at superblock scale the land use, FAR, heights (typically) road layout and storm drainage, and often require that connections are shown to be possible for potable water, black water and electricity.  You will be requires to show you have sufficient ‘exactions’ for technical plots and public services – often to a formula.   Larger schemes often require a series of studies like n traffic,  Unless you can show this your scheme cant be shown to connect to the city – indeed it becomes parasitic on it.

4) Finlly once you have concept approval you can proceed to subdivision (parcelisation or pltting it is known as) and detailed regulation of plot designs.  The government niavely has jumped straight to 4 through the LDO route ignoring the need for planning 1, 2 and 3.  The larger the site and the larger the number of large sites the more this breaks down.   It is not removing ‘red tape’ to make a Z&S system work rather it requires a big shift in resources and skills to a different kind of planning.  Indeed it requires a positve embrace of the virtues of more of this kind of planning, which of course you see in spades in our successful competitor nations and high density World Cities such as Singapore. Without this you will get yet another Greg Clark niave neoliberal planning reform march them up the hill and down again planning reform failure.




3 thoughts on “A Shift to a Zoning and Subdivision System for Brownfield is the big News in Productivity Plan

  1. Having developed your zones and sub-divisions, what is the process for dealing with the design details that so often turn what should be a decent development, a sub-standard sink estate? I’m talking about off street parking standards – not everybody lives in urban areas where there’s a choice of public transport options. What about the introduction of minimum room sizes, so that we can stop building rabbit hutches and then calling them family and executive homes?

    • Good point four typical ways dealing with design control

      1 dont deal with it at all – in underfunded regimes
      2 Deal with it implicitly in plot subdivision controls – for example ensuring plots are large enough to have some form of on street parking etc.
      3. Have special regulations that are checked during plot subdivision consent – such as requirements for acing porches etc. in most developed form Andreas Duany type design codes
      4 Have specific design review in more sensitive areas – it is of course possible to have a system alongside sophiticated control – look at Vancouver for example – what is unique about england is is blanket control everything approach to design control.

  2. You talk a lot of sense. Government is utterly clueless when it comes to planning. Their only strategy is to ‘remove red tape’ which they generally do in an I conceived manner that causes more complications and confusion rather than less. Wholesale reform may be needed but without a genuine understanding of what planning could achieve this will not happen.

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