On the Raynsford Review of the Planning System

The interim  Raynsford Review – which garnered headlines over the weekend over the planning system not being ‘fit for purpose’  has been published by the TCPA.

The report authors are high powered (including Will Upton and Chris Shepley)  and the scope sweeping.  It is certainly right to call the system complex and without clear statutory purpose in many areas.

Its scope though is firmly English.  It doesn’t look beyond on shores in terms of what does and doesn’t work.  It is interesting to contrast this with Nick Falk’s report published yesterday for the Mayor of London on measures to improve land assembly and delivery – totally pragmatic and with an international focus.   The Raynsford review focus rather is on high level aspirations.  An approach which might have worked in 1944 but for which now there is no national progressive consensus.  The risk then is that a review, like the recent review of the Scottish Planning system, focuses on the parts of the system people complain about which is sometimes a sign of a system that engages people in intrinsically conflict ridden issues.

As such the report I think misdiagnoses the main reason for the recent fragmentation of positive plan led planning and possible ways forward.  You cannot duck the bare fact that England like many western countries has failed to deliver sufficient land for housing at affordable prices and this has been a major source of inter generational inequity.  You also cannot duck that the planning system has also been captured in many areas by those who seek to protect existing house prices.  In many countries this has led to increased central and regional government international in local planning matters.   In some countries like England this has had a decidedly neoliberal regulatory tone.

The defining and almost unique feature of English planning is its highly descretionary nature, where allocations of land in local plan have no guarantee of building consents and where control exists almost every aspect of a design is subject to public comment and officer intervention.  Despite this micro focus the system has markedly not led to better place making in comparison to many continental countries where design control is more focused and the public sector has a much stronger enabling role.

The report takes this micro focus for granted.  Critcising the recent expansion of PD rights for office to resi (it could equally have mentioned beds in barns). However if seen from a purely ‘land supply’ perspective the policy has been a success in delivering a large number of brownfield units. The problem has been one of quality and loss of community benefits.  The issue here is not whether there is ‘as of right’ changes but whether:

a) these are in the right places and

b) whether even so they should be exempt from impact fees and quality controls.

We see many examples internationally where ‘as of right’zoning for land use change is accompanied by design review and impact fees.  However a compact between levels of government is needed to ensure that the volume of ‘as of right’ rezonings meets national demographic and economic needs and to ensure that local government has the right incentives – principally from land value capture – to deliver needed development and infrastructure.

We know what works, broadly, from comparative study.  I fear that the TCPA is being held back by Hugh Ellis’s often expressed prejudice against zoning and subdivision systems based on the worst practice rather than the best, as well as the failure to appreciate the benefits of hybrid systems of zoning and design control (as in Vancouver).

We know for example the French system works better than the English, The German better still, Danish and Dutch better still, yet all still struggle to keep up with demand for land use change and face many of the same problems.

The second phase of the review must be much more focused on specific changes, fully thought through to avoid the perennial problem of planning reform creating more problems that it solves.  It must be far more economically hard headed and take in much more of an international comparative focus.  Being hardheaded it would have a much better chance of winning over skeptics at the Treasury and elsewhere.



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