Responding Rationally to the Planning White Paper – Part One – Democracy and Zoning

It is important to engage the planning white paper in terms of what it says and means, not in terms of what it is imagined it says or what fore the Policy Exchange of some pamphleteering economist said it should say which in many cases has been rejected.

This is important because a frenzied atmosphere has greeted it, particularly on the issue of ‘democracy’. Many groups and bodies are in danger of acting like the sky would fall in. No zoning is not the end of the world. It is the way the whole of the rest of the world plans, and leads to better planning outcomes. It is the way the UK used to plan before 1948, when we grew impatient that plans were slowing down post war reconstruction (I blog about this here). However some degree of alarm is necessary as the government and civil service don t understand how a zoning system can and should work. There are huge gaps in the white paper in terms of required pieces of the zoning toolkit. It is not about ‘less red tape’ it is about smarter regulation, which by itself is simpler, which requires writing not cutting. It is not about quicker plan making, whatever ever system you have requires resourcing, skills and political will at the centre to drive it through. Problems that persist in any system. No it is about one thing better outcomes (including better land value capture and land assembly) which comparative studies have shown are best delivered in a posgressive zoning system which forms part of a wider system where central, strategic and local government co-deliver and partner to act on shared outcomes and visions.

Of course the government as always listened to cronies, axegrinders and ideologically driven dumb-tanks rather than ‘experts’. In true backpedaling fashion it seems like any bill will be driven by the NIMBY reactions of shire backbenchers with reform neutered by adding unrealistic numbers to Labour held areas which could not deliver the three of four times higher numbers required if you abolished planning entirely in these areas and gave permitted development for anything and everything.

Lets be clear. The English planning system has evolved into a system which is good for one thing only. Keeping the English Countryside frozen in aspic and protecting heritage assets/ It is admired around the world for the latter. We invented the tools and techniques to plan proactively, like development corporations (in the middle ages) Garden Cities, New Towns, strategic plans. Then we abolished them all because they were tough for small local authorities to deliver and gave Councillors nothing but pain.

1.16 Local councils should radically and profoundly re-invent the ambition, depth and breadth with which they engage with communities as they consult on Local Plans. Our reforms will democratise the planning process by putting a new emphasis on engagement at the plan-making stage. At the same time, we will streamline the opportunity for consultation at the planning application stage,because this adds delay to the process and allows a small minority of voices, some from the local area and often some not, to shape outcomes.

The first sentence of this is left unexplained and just seems like a counter to the implications of the second and third, which seem to have been interpreted by many as contradictory. We will be democractising the planning process by cutting out consultation and local Councillors on planning applications. Part of the problem is the aggressive, unecessarily confrontational and sloppy way this section has been written but also people imputing something the white paper does not say.

Later it states

2.39 the delegation of detailed planning decisions to planning officers where the principle of development has been established, as detailed matters for consideration should be principally a matter for professional planning judgment.

There is little controversial about this these days. In many local authorities reserved matters are all delegated. For example in Waterbeach in South Cambridgeshire a whole new town reserved matters has been approved under delegated, after previous approval of the masterplan and outline consent. It raised barely an eyebrow,

The white paper doesn’t mention the role of local councillors once. It doesnt mention reducing their democratric role once. It doesnt mention anything about abolishing planning committees etc. etc.

Yet everyone assumes this? If any chief planner or CEO of a organisation finds their white paper response predicated on this they should thrown the response in the bin. The author will have read the cool aid and not the white paper. Rather people will have read the press reports about the Planning Exchange proposing to abolish the role of planning committees, that Jack Airey has moved to number 10 and assumed 2+2=5. There were various press leaks about what the White Paper might say however number 10 made various political calls in finalising the White Paper and much was struck out. For example the widespread increase in development corporations, as the advisory group recommended, did not find its way on. All we have is a reference to the consolidation reforms on development corporations as consulted on earlier (2.38, 5.8-5.9). There role is restricted to ‘exceptionally large sites’ the same role they have had in the whole of the post war period.

Lets look at what it does say:

Most importantly it talks about ‘bringing forward’ democratic decisions about plans to the plan making stage.

There is nothing new or that controversial about this. Partly this is an application of the long held planning principle about ‘front-loading’ key planning decisions. Partly it is an application of the concept, embodied in the ‘permission in principle’ regulations, to large sites included in development plans, which parliament has already voted on and approved and which simply awaits secondary legislation. Alongside the white paper is a more detailed consultation on bringing this in (as an interim measure). One key change though is a return to the pre-2004 Act (section 20) approach to ‘Examinations in Public’ rather than ‘Public Inquiries’ where the panel choose the participants and there is no automatic right to be heard. I have no problem with that. There is no automatic right to be heard on the floor of parliament – you write to an MP or belong to a lobby group, its a matter of scale. We need to get back to EiPs taking days not years.

This should not be controversial. If an adopted plan allocated land for a use it should not be open for planning committees to refuse that use or for objectors to reopen long established principles. Where Councillors have done this, such as Northampton cllrs rejecting Dallington Heath and Torridge Cllrs rejecting all 5 new local plan sites around Bideford (and losing all 5 on appeal) it makes a laughing stock of the local plan system.

So this isn’t the major change to the role of the local Councillor. The main change would only kick in for those sites (likely to be a minority even in a zoning system) where masterplans have been prepared.

At the moment there is two-three stages of regulatory approval (setting aside conditions of minor details)

Local Plan

Outline Consent

Reserved Matters

On very large sites it is impractical to clear all reserved matters on once, particularly on multi developer /multi phase sites. So often there is a key condition (or more likely a s106 clause) requiring a masterplan, with a phasing and parameter plans, for the overall development – which might include only the main connector roads, land uses and main open spaces, with later reserved matters conditions approving designs on individual developer parcels.

This approach, as used on large sites such as Houton (Rugby) and Bicester East deliberately mimics the best practice used on continental zoning and subdivision sites.

In a zoning system the stages are much simpler

  1. Establishment of ‘as of right’ zoning in a plan (called confusingly in the white paper permission in principle – a Scottish term which replaced outline consent)
  2. Subdivision consent of a masterplan
  3. Applications to either the developer and/or the local authority for compliance of a subdivisions design to a design code (where a design code exists).

The process is much simpler and clearer. There is no opportunity to reargue issues established by the upper level ‘as of right’ consent.

The white paper refers briefing to such an approach:

3.18 where plans identify areas for significant development (Growth areas), we will legislate to require that a masterplan and site-specific code are agreed as a condition of the permission in principle which is granted through the plan. This should be in place prior to detailed proposals coming forward, to direct and expedite those detailed matters. These masterplans and codes could be prepared by the local planning authority alongside or subsequent to preparing its plan, at a level of detail commensurate with the size of site and key principles to be established.

Not every allocated site in a zoning plan will require a masterplan and design code. They are typically done only for the most complex sites. The White Paper may be too ambitious here, design guides will suffice for many small zoned sites. In almost all zoning systems however you cannot subdivide and develop a site, whether zoned or not, until you have agreed a subdivision plan with the planning authority. The origins of these predate zoning and were required for local taxation and infrastructure purposes notwithstanding planning. On top of this there may be an additional regulatory control requiring design approval of a schemes design, whether in a masterplan of a growth area or new or redeveloped schemes in an existing developed area. In many cases community review or consultation is required.

In addition to this consultation zoning systems require approval, which may trigger consultation requirements, in six cases.

  • Firstly compliance with zoning requirements (especially where there are special environmental conditions on a zoning)
  • Secondly for design and layouts agreed for subdivision/masterplan consents.
  • Thirdly where a developer proposes to later a previously agreed masterplan or design.
  • Thirdly, where there are form based codes, for compliance of a design to the details of the form based code. This may trigger public consultation, but typically only in the most sensitive areas such as historic areas.
  • Fourthly where a developer proposes something different to the zoning, known as spot zoning.
  • Finally where there is an appeal to a consent refusal (which can be any of the above) ordances may mandate in some cases public hearings.

The white paper does not explain well how a zoning system would work and has an unreaslitic direste all at once approach to its delivery. It will take a generation to put it into place fully.

It is already happening, as shown above, it is proven to work at home and abroad, it makes land value capture (and hence affordable housing and infrastructure) much easier, and many of its goals are hacked on badly to planning law never designed to accommodate them. The concepts of zone, subdivision and design code appear nowhere in uk planning law. They are all hacked on badly.

We need a new simple planning act which would eventually replace the old. I think this should happen in three phases over 12-15 years. Phase one four years new zoning plans, comprehensive but implemented first in growth areas. Phase two years 0-8 putting in place masterplans and design codes for all large sites, with the early delivery large sites first, phase three years 2-12 developing form based codes for development of small new sites and redevelopment of existing sites. This pragmatic phased approach could demostrate widespread support and would focus attention on the biggest nag for buck sites first, whilst ensuring the limited staff with the right skills and experience were not overstreached.

What is the objection to this, Fear of change. Fear that Nimbeys will be undermined in a system that focus consultation on the best places and best ways of saying yes rather than the loudest way to shout no? Planners local authorities, professional institutions and organizations would be much more productive and influential if they applied there attention to how a zoning system should be designed to be radically participative and productive than objecting to things they imaged they saw but arn’t actually there in the white paper. If they dont there responses will only deserve storage in this well known MCHLG filing cabinet.

London Conservative MPs Say New Standard Method Will Destroy London Suburbia


Boris Johnson has been warned by Tory MPs that an algorithm at the heart of his planning reforms risks “destroying suburbia” and “creating the slums of the future”.

The prime minister held a video conference call on Wednesday with 17 Tory MPs from the greater London area about the government’s white paper on planning. He was joined by Mark Spencer, the chief whip, and Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary.

The MPs, who included four serving ministers, were “unanimous” in raising concerns about the reforms, which will treble the number of homes built in London to 93,532 a year. They warned that the reforms would “do real harm to the suburbs” and “real harm to the Conservative vote”.

Its a calculation of need, not necessarily in land constrained areas where it should go. Until ministers recognize the need to redistribute what overspill above what the London Plan EIP panel says London can build we will always have this.

Government Panic Means Reformed Planning System Could Deliver Far Fewer Houses

Daily Mail

A source said an area’s required number of homes ‘will only be the starting point’ in the process. ‘Local authorities will still need to consider the constraints they face locally to assess how many homes can be delivered,’ 

Err wasnt the point of The Planning White Paper to strengthen the standard method, remove the cap and redistribute housing from constrained areas; and this would replace the duty to cooperate which under current national policy requires provision for ‘a any needs that cannot be met within neighbouring areas’

So with this change, which isn’t in the White Paper, local authorities would simply push numbers down to far lower than than the formula or the current system. What a mess.

Of course it may simply be the MHCLG press office not really understanding what they are doing, in the absence of a new chief planner, trying to spin themselves out of a political hole, or ministers doing the same. Either way lets ask a simple question, is the purpose of the reforms to force the shires to build more or let them build less? Its a simple question.

Spectator – Housing Needs Formula to Be Changed Following Pressure from Shire Mps

Why the relative shifts from the old system

Firstly the units element doesnot reflect that city authorities can have household sizes 10-15 percent larger than suburban and shire authorities. The formula can easily be amended to normalise for household size.

Secondly the removal of the cap and the raising of the nationwide total as a result from 240,000 to 330,000 will inevitably lead to increases where need is greatest.

Finally I think Litchfields comparison was with build rates, and inner urban authorities have had higher build rates as the old formula artificially reduced numbers in these areas as these were the areas, because of low wages and overoccupancy where there was most supression of household formation.

The formula is easily changed to whichever is the greater of the three – Household formation, Houses (normalised to household size) or completions of the past 5 years – or better an average of the three weighed by an affordability index and to hit 330,000 overall. There could be exceptional circumstances where large sites are coming to completion.

There will no no respite for the shire though, simply because London especially in land constrained, and some kind of formula or plan will be needed to distribute the numbers to areas which are less land constrained. The numbers London can realistically take have been set by the last London Plan EIPO panel. A formula will not raise housebuildinbg in London is there is a lack of land to zone. We have 20 years experience of this now. So

‘it is delusional to think that the housing problem can be solved by developments in labour cities whilst leaving the Tory shire untouched.’

How to Deliberately Mess Up Your New Zoning Local Plan to Build Less Homes

I’m not in the business of advising NIMBY local, authorities but I will point out fatal flaws in the Planning White Paper.

The White Paper proposes to abolish the DTC and the forward looking 5YHLSS. It also proposes no formal requirement to examine alternative realistic plan options (as required by the SEA directive). It leaps directly from a call for proposals to a submission plan. New plans have to be in place within 30 months. The assumption being presumably no need as growth areas will be in place.

So what if you are the kind of authority like Wokingham or East Devon that wants to build far less. Easy just produce a sloppy, stupid, back of the envelope plan showing houjsing in the worst possible places. You will get masses of objections and the plan will fail at examination. Job done.

Thank you Planning White Paper for messing up zoning reform and incentivising the one thing we have too much of: bad plans.

We Need More Consultation – But As Long as We don’t Consult on More Housing – Rampant Hypocrisy in East Devon

The big problem in strategic plan making is failure to consult on strategic options. All the wind about ‘democracy’ in the current debate is worthless if seen on a house by house basis. The elephant in the room is the lack of housing, and on that those opining on the Planning White Paper are silent on that.

Exmouth Journal

The leader of East Devon District Council (EDDC) has called on councillors to come together to ‘re-make’ the region’s local plan after pulling out of the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan (GESP).

At its Full Council meeting on Thursday (August 20), EDDC agreed to withdraw from GESP, following a recommendation from the Strategic Planning Committee.

The council approved the committee’s recommendation to:

• Notify our district partners that we are withdrawing from the GESP;

• In that letter, written by council leader Paul Arnott, the district council offers assurance that it will fulfil its duty to co-operate in an ongoing and positive partnership;

• That this council immediately begins the process to renew our local plan and that the Strategic Planning Committee meets as soon as possible to explore and define the processes involved.

A recorded vote was taken and 33 councillors voted in favour, with 22 against and 1 abstention.

Cllr Arnott has called for the 22 councillors who voted to stary in the GESP process to work with other ward members to improve the existing East Devon Local Plan.

He said: “It is a central commitment of this council to work for sustainable economic growth and attainable homes and where this involves cross-district collaboration we will embrace this enthusiastically.

“Sadly, the GESP envelope placed the cart before the horse.

“What was needed was a genuine consultation on what our residents want and need in terms of transport infrastructure, green homes, economic initiatives and so on in a post-pandemic Devon.

“The consultation that had been prepared paid lip service to these but was mainly an alarming push to ‘consult’ on vast new tracts of green fields going under concrete with promises of infrastructure gains that were plainly mere aspirations.

“Yet again, many councillors described GESP as a ‘developer’s charter’.

“Crucially, of the 60 members of East Devon council just 22 were prepared to back staying in the GESP.

“It is to be hoped that the 22 can now move on to work with the great majority of democratically elected councillors who wish to defend our district against the government’s ill-conceived ideas for the Planning system and to help us re-make a better and more sustainable Local Plan.”

The Progressiveness of ‘As of Right’ Zoning

As I have written on here many times in the last few weeks the government only has itself to blame in terms of importance and mistrust for creating a climate of opposition to the planning white paper.

Chief amongst the complaint is that the reforms are ‘anti democratic’ in reducing the chances to ‘object’ to a proposal from two to one.

The irony is that most progressive opinion in the world is that ‘existing’ zoning systems give too much of an opportunity to resist densification through site specific objection and this is excluding groups in terms of race and income.

This illustrates a number of fundmanetal misinderstandings of what zoning is and is not.

  1. Zoning is not Planning Control

The first modern planning controls – such as in Prussia, were controls over street alignments, subdivision, build to lines and infrastructure. Zoning – in terms of control over land use, came later, especially in America. You can see this most clearly in Houston, which has detailed planning controls but no zoning.

2. Zoning was introduced to protect residential areas from 19C industry, but became in many areas a tool of racial and social exclusion.

The spread of zoning across US cities was driven by a desire to zone out black people. When this was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court many cities just made minor rewrites to zoning codes so that for example ‘R1’ areas that previously excluded blacks now became ‘R1’ areas that only allowed large single family units and so excluded black people socio-economically. This is very well documented. This is the kind of zoning Donald Trump now want s to retain in a blatant dog-whistle.

3. Zoning does not mean complete loss of opportunity for site level consent

In any zoning system there will be applications for zoning variances. permission for things not permitted by code – that is for spot zoning’. Many sophisticated zoning codes require design review in sensitive areas, which typically also require public consultation. The issue is to what extent certain features of the zoning codes are ‘as of right’ that is automatically granted by the zoning code. There is widespread agreement that once a land use if fixed in a plan then there should not be the opportunity for a ‘second crack of the whip’ to object again at development management type stages. This leads to huge uncertainty for investors and just fuels Nimbyism. Lets give an example of an area zones for 4 story apartments where because of opposition a developer proposes 1/4 of the number of units as single family dwellings leading to dozens of people being excluded from the neighborhood. We see it often in England where sites in local plans are still refused by planning committees. This is indefensible. This is why calls for progressive zoning reform, covered below, often call for extensions of ‘as of right’ zoning. This is why I find staggering, and in reality rather ignorant, for so called ‘progressives’ to oppose ‘as of right’ zoning as undemocratic. They are reinforcing the racist nimby-ism and social exclusionary forces that are preventing the building of affordable housing. Im looking at you RTPI, TCPA, IoH, RIBA, why hold the same views as Trump. Your BMT advisory boards should be up in arms. Look beyond the ends of your noses of UK politics and find out what your equivalent professional bodies in other countries think about ‘as of right’

4. Recent Years Have seen Movements for Progressive Zoning Reform

Zoning reform has occurred most positively in Germany and the US. Germany led the way with a shift towards design control. As heavy industry faded the justification for zoning shifted. This followed in america with the work of CNU and people like Andreas Duany and Elibeth Plater Zyberk and the birth of design codes, which morphed into the form based zoning movement and the ending of single family zoning in updated form based codes in many cities such as Minneapolis.

5. Zoning, and Land Pooling, Helps Enormously in Land Value Capture

One of the reason social infrastructure and affordable housing get squeezed is its discretionary nature and lack of clear rules which fix land value.

Zoning itself just porovides a framework for this. It requires a level of control below this called subdivision control to make this work. This can be pared as in Japan and Germany with land pooling powers forcing the polling for land holdings in newly zoned areas. This allows for the subtraction at existing land value land for roads, parks, schools and affordable housing – which is known as exaction.

Why Council Leaders Want to Get Naked Over Housing Numbers – A Response to Andy Inch

The Conversation – Andy Inch

Opposition to housebuilding can be passionate. During a meeting of Wokingham Borough Council on July 23, Conservative council leader John Halsall reportedly suggested protesting naked against the levels of new housing development they are being required to approve. Wokingham, located in the wealthy commuter belt to the west of London, is an area whose local politics has long been marked by strong local opposition to housebuilding.

Aerial view of estate of new houses next to river
New homes in Wokingham. Drone Motion Stock/Shutterstock

At first glance, Cllr. Halsall’s gesture seems a stark illustration of unbending local obstruction. On closer examination, however, the elected leader of a local authority threatening to bare all to protest against new housebuilding doesn’t fit the narrative of all powerful objectors blocking development. Rather, it suggests a feeling of real powerlessness.

Our investigation of an abandoned proposal to pay residents to reduce objections to new housing found something similar. Neither planners, councillors or local communities felt local opposition made much difference to decisions about housebuilding. Rather, they believed the planning system was set up to override objections. Applications were approved irrespective of local views or the (often negative) impacts development would have on local infrastructure and services.

No – because the powerless is not symmetrical. Local plans have full powers to raise housing numbers. Greg Clarkes localist agenda was based on the bizarre assumption that if free to set their own targets LPAs would raise them. They lowered them.

The localist frustration is solely about powerless to lower targets. If they tried raising them the ‘narrative of all powerful objectors blocking development’ is completely true – just looks at local politicians in the likes of South Oxfordshire and Uttlesford who fell trying to raise targets.

I wont comment on the assertions, based on a weak understanding of land economic, that raising targets wont make housing cheaper. That has been debunked in 100s of blogs across the internet.

How not to Package and Sell Planning Reforms

Planoraks Blog Interview with Kit Kat

How do you view the media’s reaction to the White Paper so far and (another bonus question!), what’s your answer to those who’ve painted the White Paper as a charter for the next generation of slums

I spent much of launch day shouting at the radio as commentator after commentator said ridiculous things about the proposals – I’m very sad to see the big ideas so mischaracterised, in many cases by people saying that the proposals are the exact opposite of what we’ve put forward; for example, one of the big themes of the critics has been that the proposals would remove the power of councils to decide what to build where, and deny local people the opportunity to object whereas in fact the proposals would give far more power to councillors and to local people and communities not only over what to build where but also to draw up “pattern books” of what development should look like, and what standards it should follow. The statement made that we would create the next generation of slums is crass and I was exceptionally disappointed at the source of the statement – in fact the proposals would create a charter for building places where we would be proud to live; of all the things that have been said by critics, the “slums of the future” comment is the most absurd. 

What do you say to the idea that England’s current planning system would work just fine if it was resourced properly? 

I would say “you cannot be serious! Are you joking?!”

The Government only has itself to blame for its botched and incompetent presentation and explanation of planning reform.

Firstly all good faith is gone. Its permitted development reforms allowed beds in coshed, beds in cupboards with no windows etc. Also the behaviors of the planning minister suggested planning permission is for sale and that ‘red tape’ was the problem. There was NO communications strategy suggesting we could follow international best practice in achieving world class quality carbon neutral communities.

As a result it was open game to the lazy journalism, or even commentary from professional institutions and even Pro Cliff Hague, that it was a ‘developers charter’ with planning permission for sale etc. Sorry Kit Kat – you asked for it.

What positive suggestions it had were explained in contradictory and complex ways. Plans forecast too much, so lets have a beefed up nationally determined standard method. SEA and HA are too complex, but lets stick to international obligations. The worst is its proposals on affordable housing, get rid of S106, hint vaguely that charges would be made AFTER deductions from in kind contributions of land for services and affordable housing (which is broadly the continental system made easier by zoning) but dont explain it so everyone assumes affordable housing is being abolished. Ofqual have a superior media strategy.

What is more by not mentioning social housing once, by punting back carbon neutral housing by 30 years and not mentioning any of the good stuff – like Garden Communities, once, because of repeating the failed strategy of letting local government making all of the big bad decisions (which they have totally failed to do with strategic allocations).

However even if they had got it right noone would have believed you. You cant spend 20 years knocking the very idea of planning and have people trust you that you now believe in it and want to do it better.

It had a go at all of the key reforms in the last round, DTC, presumption over 5YPP ‘build what you like where you like’ without grasping that the problem was the abolition of strategic planning in the first place.

Hence the essential message – that the UKs uniquely bad discretionary system – that only works for aging well off property owners objecting to things and not for the young, propertyless and disadvantaged, was lost.

We will have to wait for the next cabinet reshuffle and the unlikely prospect that someone not over promoted takes over, and that Cummings is not in charge of media strategy.

Some Rules of Advocado Planning

Avocado Planning here

  1. Never Build a Town in a Forest

2. Never Build a Town in a Floodplain


3. Never Build a Town on Top of a Hill


4. Never Build a Town in Beautiful Countryside

Why is Bath a World Heritage Site? | City of Bath World Heritage Site

5. Never Build a Town on the Coast

Beautiful Oia town on Santorini island, Greece

6. Never Build a Town in Front of A Beautiful View


7. Never Build on Agricultural Land


8. Never Build a Town on Steep Slopes


9. Don’t Build Tall Buildings in Small Rural Towns

Pin on Deeply Southern
Andalucia Albabama

10. Don’t Build Towns Requiring New Roads or Infrastructure

Top 10 small towns in Spain, charming places you need to visit

If there is ANY proposal for a large strategic site you will get a laundry list of natural assets that it will harm. Human civilization has been built on overcoming these challenges. Clearing forests, building on lowest bridging points etc. It is the natural settings of these places which create the finest towns and cities on the planet, as well as creating the economic conditions upgrading of land and local markets which more than overcome the disadvantages, whether draining of polders in the Netherlands or the massively productive agricultural land in Japan. Places shape their surroundings and successful places shape their surroundings.

This is not to say you should rip up the rules about where development should go. But they should be treated as in many cases be amenable to good design, only where there are irreplaceable natural assets should it be a firm no.