On a Standardised Approach to Zoning

‘Planning for the Future’ doesn’t say it up front that ‘they do it better over the pond’ or that ‘we used to do zoning well – then mucked it up in 1948’ but they are implicit – and the first point is very much tucked away later in the report.

In Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, you can get twice as much housing space for your money compared to the UK

As every planner who has read Peter Hall, Nick Falk or David Rudlin, or who has visited or practiced in continental zoning systems they produce THE model of modern high quality sustainable planning.

So lets not be cynical that a push towards zoning is designed to produce a charter for ugly sprawl and a bonfire of regulations designed as a charter for developers. This is the instant knee jerk response of bodies such as the TCPA and RIBA. A considered response would start with the core of the concept – the British regulatory system – unique in the world – produces sub optimal outcomes. Start with that and deal with that.

We are habituated as to the infinite ability of the ministry to screw things up. There are good reasons for this. They have screwed up every attempt to ‘reform planning’ over the last 20 years. Each attempt making things worse. At the heart of this has been the peculiar expertise of the British Civil Service to add extra layers of complication at every attempt for simplification through an excessive degree of central control for a system which at its heart is one of local ordnances.

Also has been the janus headed tension between the neoliberal impulse against planning as ‘red tape’ or ‘soviet control’ and the recognition that ‘planning’ is necessary to produce quality outcomes. There is also a certain inevitable cynicism about a process launched in a parliamentary recess and led by a SoS en mired in scandal, and undertaken without any input from experts in planning in zoning and subdivision regimes.

There was a time when Town Planning was an international movement for social reform – led from the UK. It moved beyond the early Prussian types attempts where planning was purely regulation and health to one driven by a vision of the quality of place and the sharing of land value uplift.

Again despite our cynicism the urge towards better places- as epitomized by the building better building beautiful commission and to capture a proportion of land value uplift are now drivers of reform – which was absent during the botched NPPF reforms.

Lets be clear too. The proposals here are far more thought through than the botched PAF/NPPF changes, which did nothing and indeed were counterproductive in solving the key problem of plans not allocating enough land quickly enough for housing.

If the proposals were refined and phased – focusing on zoning strategic housing sites in the first phase, with zoning of existing urban areas deferred to a future phase, they could be workable.

Bodies responding should think, how do the best planning systems around the world work, and how might they work here?

One of the key advantages of zoning is standardisation. If for example you buy land in zone R3 you can value and design fairly easily a scheme based on the zone regs and this standardization enables predictability of land price which enables easier capturing of land value uplift.

The risk is a tower of babel of different zonings and rules between every plan area, of which the US system is the worst example. Then layers tend to take over as zones tend to become means of freezing change and existing social and racial advantage. In such a case lawyers not planner dominate the system. As Jason Segedy argues

Let’s get real once again.  Zoning is not primarily, nor is it fundamentally, an urban planning process.  It is a legislative process.  It has the force of law, and it is ultimately enacted by legislators, not urban planners. You might be surprised by how little many planners have to do with land use policy in our cities

This can clearly be seen in President Trumps cack handed attempts to stop zoning reform in the states, prevent the market determining development and embed segregationist zoning rules forever.

Hence many processes of zoning reform, for example conducted at US State level, or most recently by the New Zealand Government, have been to set down certain standardised rules to ensure zoning does not become regressive. These typically include scope for increased intensification in transit areas and to restrain minimum parking standards.

If local planning authorities are to start zoning it would be of enormous benefit if the ministry set out a standardised set of zones, as happens in Germany, the Building Utilization Ordinance ( BauNVO for short ) last reformed in 2016 to reduce the number of zones and allow more mized use in urban areas.

I give a google translate link to the system here.

There are essentially 11 zones, and even here the number reflects certain historical additions – such as the need to allow for certain agricultural uses in small towns and villages, and make special accommodation for large tourism uses. You wouldn’t start with such a system if you had a blank sheet of paper.

Small settlement areasWS§ 2 BauNVO
pure residential areasWR§ 3 BauNVO
general residential areasWA§ 4 BauNVO
special residential areasWBSection 4a BauNVO
Village areasMD§ 5 BauNVO
Mixed areasMI§ 6 BauNVO
Urban areasMU§ 6a BauNVO
Core areasMK§ 7 BauNVO
Industrial areasGE§ 8 BauNVO
Industrial areasGI§ 9 BauNVO
Special areasSO§ 10 , § 11 BauNV

Overview of permissible combinations of uses (BAUNVO)

Building typesWSWRWAWBMDMIMUMKGEGI
Residential buildingJaJaJaJaJaJaJa
Shops, restaurantsJaJaJaJaJaJa
Ecclesiastical, cultural, health, social, sports facilitiesJaJaJaJaJaJa
Hotels, pensionsJaJaJaJaJa
Gas stationsJaJaJaJa
Non-disruptive craft businessesJaJaJaJa
Non-disruptive businessJaJaJaJaJa
Other businessesJaJaJaJaJaJa
Administration buildingJaJaJaJa
Business and office buildingJaJaJaJaJa
Places of amusementJaJa
Agricultural and forestry businessesJa
Kitchen gardens, horticultural businessesJaJaJa
Warehouses and placesJaJa
Industrial companiesJa
Jaallowed
exceptionally permissible [1]

There is also a standardized system for definitions bulk zoning – that is regulations for controlling the intensification and form of buildings on parcels, like construction mass number (BMZ) which is the same as FAR. Such regulations and regulations such as build to lines are a matter for local discretion.

This is in contrast to the Japenese system where zoning is much looser but rules on bulk zoning, in terms of how much you can build, is more standardized.

It is generally accepted that the best system is that of form based zoning as pioneered by Andreas Duany and the CNU. Here the different types of zone are structured along a transect and for each zoning fabric along the transect rules set out acceptable development forms.

An ideal system for England would set out a National Transect – which sets out a range of zones, within which certain uses would apply, with local discretion on the range of forms that would be permitted in each fabric, and some variation in permitted uses where there is a strong local case. Local Planning authorities or groups of authorities could adapt form based zones according to their own local character – building on existing documents such as the Kent and Essex design guides. It is far quicker to zone out fabric areas, detailed form based zones for growth areas can come later, and for existing areas later still. This is a pragmatic and deliverable approach to zoning reform based on acknowledged best practice. It would be far more productive if the various lobby groups got together and advocated reform on these lines rather than being purely opposition.

The consultation paper recognises that in growth areas permission cannot be ‘automatic’ and uses conflicting language here. All that is automatic is the zoning consent for the use.

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.

This is a two stage process not one. The zoning gives consent for the use, but the use cannot be build out until a masterplan is drawn up with a subdivision scheme, which sets out areas for roads, open space etc.

The section on land value capture would be much clearer if this was much clearer. Land for roads, schools, SUDS, open spaces, and affordable housing would be transferred at existing use value and thereafter a percentage (50%) of land value uplift would be captured to build the roads, transit, open spaces, schools and affordable housing. Internationally this process is known as exaction and Oliver Letwin in his review understood the importance of it – with the master planning done wither by the local authority, a development corporation or a private developer and approved by the local authority. The language is woolly but the government seems to have accepted the essence of the Letwin report.

On how plans would be preared the consultation paper is sketchy and poorly thought through.

Local communities and developers submit sites as a first stage but local communities get no opportunity to decide between alternative strategies which is the fundamental weakness in the current system. The paper uses handwaving to dismiss the complications of SEA, HA etc. then magically tries to state that existing international obligations will be met. It is much better than government build in this as part of the simplified system.

A revised standard method is proposed with much more emphasis on planned increases to the dwelling stock rather than the circular household formation projection approach. None the less they have as very predictably managed to completely muck up the sensible proposals for reform put forward by Litchfields and Savills. So rather than giving ‘increased weight’ to graduated increases in the dwelling stock replaces it with a system where it either has zero or 100% weight.

Also it makes the disastrous confusion of land constraints and policy constraints with objective need. Green Belt has nothing to do with need, and is a policy constraint NOT a land constraint. If some areas cant take the need then there should be a national system for reallocation of need, and one that in line with current policy produce sprawl just beyond the Green Belt.

Then there is the issue of strategic planning. The report want to get rid of the Duty to Cooperate. This was a poor second best for strategic planning. But there still needs to be a system for strategic planning if we are not to hardcode into the revised system undershooting national housing target. For example if Sevonoaks district says it is land constrained where will get its overspill need?

We may in the future get larger authorities, this will resolve much of the problem, but we will still get overspill need from large cities such as London. The paper makes the preposterous suggestion that combined authorities Mayors allocate between areas. They is really working well in areas such as Cambridgeshire and the west midlands isn’t it. Rather there should be statutory joint committees to decide on the mandatory strategic issues such as housing allocations. At the very least these should be interim measures now as local government reform will be over just at the point the new plans are needed.

Finally the paper makes the mistake of seeing the zoning as ‘the plan’ replacing policy documents. As anyone who has followed zoning reform internationally the zoning is not the plan. There are endless examples of bad zoning. Rather zoning is the outcome of implementation of the policies in a comprehensive plan. The plan provides the vision and narrative. I really don’t care if a comprehensive plan is 50, 100 or 200 pages long as long as the zoning maps and regulation can fit (forn a city) on two sides of A1 and areas of growth have illustrative masterplans to illustarte future form and character.

One thought on “On a Standardised Approach to Zoning

  1. For me, the ever present elephant in the room is the dogged insistence on promising all things to all people. More accountable and better local democracy on the one hand, nationally determined allocations of housing numbers on the other. Doesn’t matter what system you employ to deliver plan making and planning decisions, you have to come off the fence and choose one over the other. Local democratic control or objective planning.

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