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.