An Open Letter to @joannaaverley on Planning Reform

Dear Joanna,

Your role is absolutely critical within government on being a source of expertise and reason on the direction of planning. Never more so now the consultation on the Planning White Paper has closed and you now need to recommend on delivery.

I am writing as someone who has advised governments of all colours since 2003 in England and been planning advisor to several countries abroad. I devised the concept of ‘core strategy’ and for many years have advocated a pragmatic move towards a zoning based system. My phrases and writings have appeared numerous times in ministerial speeches.

I recommend here a ‘Zone Smart’ approach where zoning and form based coding is implemented where real world best practice internationally shows it has most impact. Proposals are phased to reduce uncertainty and the disruption of unnecessary change and the supporting strategic and subdivision systems to make a zoning system work are in place.

The Planning White Paper has many exciting aspects, but pulls in many directions, contradicts itself through out and if implemented in a clean sweep New Planning Act would lead to a retrograde ‘zeitgeist’ which we have seen many times, such as in the 1948 and 2004 planning acts, where the disruption and failure to understand the positives and negatives of old systems outweighed the disadvantages. It is a mess with no clear vision.

The starting point therefore should be a rigorous swot and gap analysis, informed by a sound historical and comparative international analysis of what the discretionary ‘British’ planning system does well and badly compared to our competitors. This should be informed by proper experts who have worked in planning internationally, not self appointed ones who have no knowledge or experience of what happens beyond English shores.

In the last few years we have thankfully moved beyond the view that the 1948 was the ‘heroic’ period we have moved backwards from since. Before 1948 UK planning was pioneering and its creations and creators were sought out around the world. After 1948 it became impossible to build these. It is the wrong analysis to claim this was a ‘socialist system’, the problem is not one of deregulation but better regulation. Every time a minister or prime minister mentions ‘red tape’ in a speech please scold them. Every such attempt in the last 10 years has simply added masses more paperwork. Just ask any DM officer working on a prior approval case. Better regulation also requires an effective system of land value capture. This is a running stream of failure since Uthwatt. We have not learned from our neighbors in setting up a simple system of land value capture to ensure infrastructure and affordable housing are done alongside sellable development.

What the current planning system does well:

  • Advertisement control
  • Control of heritage asset changes (though woefully funded)
  • Protection of protected landscapes
  • Small scale infill schemes in villages

Here is what the planning system does badly:

  • Providing enough housing
  • Securing enough affordable housing
  • Having a coherent system for protecting species and habitats across large areas
  • Carbon neutral and negative planning
  • Planning for areas in economic decline in small towns and villages
  • Integrating land use and transportation
  • Since the ending of New Towns and Regional Planning, planning for overspill outside major cities
  • Landscape scale improvements and restoration
  • Providing certainty to developers, especially small developers and developers of larger sites
  • Integrating planning for infrastructure with planning for everything else.
  • A poor skill set and leadership in the planning profession
  • Not valuing specialist skills such as urban design and conservation in planning pay scales
  • Not having a system which can learn in terms of repeatable rules from successful developments
  • Separation of powers across multiple local government tiers
  • A lack of joint endeavor and partnership on the difficult system of housing numbers, instead we have a blame culture
  • The void and delays caused by the abolition of strategic planning and its weak replacement the DTC.
  • Lack of a simple system to capture land value, instead every site is a battle over viability
  • Local plans takes years, or decades
  • Local Plan Examinations now take years
  • Local Plan Examinations or not designed to handle large scale developments
  • Lack of effective and accountable delivery bodies to drive forward implementation.
  • Failure to derive a system to ensure national housing need is set in full.
  • Because planning is not seen to be trusted on delivery of these matters development is seen as an enemy to be resisted, and this has driven the almost entirely negative reception of the white paper.
  • Hence planning is seen as politically toxic. If you push a plan that meets need, your political career is likely to be limited.
  • Similarly a lack of strong political leadership
  • The failure of all of the new style joint strategic plans from the West of England plan onwards.

The list of problems well exceeds the lists of advantages, and critically many of the less discretionary and more zoning and subdivision based systems we see on the continent and elsewhere do not have these disadvantages.

Firstly it is not a question of discretion or certainty. All planning systems are a balance of both. Zoning based systems can degrade over time to discretionary ones where they remain rigid, out of date and where you have ‘zoning without planning’ – a system of regulations without vision, strategy or performance measures. A classic example being New York, which had zoning but never a comprehensive plan, where nearly two thirds of decisions are made through ad hoc ‘spot-zoning’ which works little different as to planning in London. A shift towards the certainty of a zoning based system is necessary. the unique highly discretionary system of the British system, where even a local plan allocation gives no ‘as of right’ development rights on land is essential. There is a clear connection between the unusual discretionary nature of the British system (also shared only with Ireland) and its conflict based and its dysfunctional nature. It does nothing to enable the processes which ensure quality and coordination, and does everything to ensure conflict and delay.

All we have to do is look internationally at systems which ensure high housing delivery and high quality and learn from them. The ministry and government has shown almost no propensity towards this institutional learning, rather preferring those with axes to grind about moaning on the current system or reputations to make as members of the SW1 ‘dumbtank’ set, in terms of presenting half baked ideas leeched off real experts and presented in a format that is guaranteed to fail. They have however occupied a vacuum left by intuitional failures of the British civil service in being able to plan for major reform and the abolition of the chief planning advisor post. If we look at analysis be real experts, for example the late (and former chief planning advisor) Peter Hall’s last and best book ‘Better Places Better Lives’ (heavily influenced by Nick Falk) we can see a thorough analysis of these critical success factors.

There are a number of critical success factors to how ‘good zoning works. These depends as much on the context of wider decisions in which local plan making and zoning sites and how plans are delivered. The vast majority, probably 80 percent, of changes can be made (as per the pareto principle) without all consuming and transforming legislation. Your focus I submit should be on changes to introduce ‘Smart zoning’ that can be made within current legislation, by secondary legislation and by henry VIII powers under current legislation. Legislative changes in the next 12 months should be based on a number of specific changes rather than wholesale new planning act. It simply isn’t needed. A new planning act would take around 17 months to complete all stages (like the 2004 act) and be an enormous distraction. It is likely to be picked apart becoming incoherent in the process. Once the new system is in place under current powers several years in the future there can be a much needed law commission driven simplification of planning law. Which should be simply presented as a ‘tidying up’ like the 1990 Act which passed without barely any discussion, rather than a major policy change.

The starting point of reform should be to introduce elements of zoning for those sites and areas where zoning makes the most immediate benefits. There is no need for universal zoning. This has few advantages. In Germany for example zoning normally only applies to growth areas and urban areas with a discretionary system operating in most rural areas. This could be done through a combination of the much delayed introduction of automatic permission in principle for major growth areas allocated in local plans. It is a unique and retrogressive aspect of the UK system that outline planning applications can and often are refused despite being allocated in local plans. There is absolutely no ‘democratic’ advantage in giving a second crack of the whip on consultation here. It is just a special privilege given to there wealthy to overturn already democratically decided decisions. It is a policy for the many not the few.

Special consideration should also be given to enabling the provisions of the New Town Act for the SoS to approve masterplan which given prior approval to development. This proved a simple and highly effective mechanism. The Act however needs updating, for example through giving development corporations the power to run sustainable utility networks. They cant even run high speed fibre networks, which the community wellbeing power now allows local authorities to.

What us not recommended is the use of the DCO regime. This is a highly effective power, although the frequent clashes with local plans, such as at RAF Manston and Shenfield Aerodrome, should be resolved. The current regime makes almost impossible the joint planning of communities and national infrastructure. The DCO regime works well where there are national policy statements. It has not worked well where they are spatially blind, such as for ports. DCO regime for housing without an NPS for new communities (which would be a foolish endeavor) would be a disaster, enabling poorly located privately led development (a lesson learned from the Ecotowns process) contrary to local plans and in the face of opposition. Rather developers should be encouraged to submit schemes for inclusion in local plan zoning, or when a local plan is years away as a one off forml amendment, including a full planning scheme including a masterplan.

The white paper division between growth, regeneration and protection areas is confusing. Giving the impression that there would be only three zones, and growth zones would cover vast areas, as in the original poorly design Jack Airey proposals. In reality there would only be one category in a zoning system, zoned areas, the rest being discretionary. Protected areas are always and everywhere in a zoning system an ‘overlay zone’ that sets special restrictions and influences and shapes where as of right zones go. This is important to understand as overlay zones can also apply in discretionary areas, for example AONB and National Parks. Also development can occur in overlay zones, it just faces certain additional regulations and discretionary tests. For example major developed sites in the Green Belt. Even in growth areas there can and must be overlay protections, such as an area of ancient woodland, or a conservation area, within a new town boundary.

The rationalization and categorization of zoning zones according to a national scheme of a limited number of zones, as for example happens in Germany and to a lesser extent Ireland, has many advantages. It makes plans simple, and as in Ireland enables a national online zoning map and a common basis for statistics and monitoring. Best practice, as for example pioneered by Andreus Duany and DTZ, is to categorise ‘function areas’ along a transect running for the most central to the most rural areas on one axis, and then the mix of uses along another axis depending on whether the area is a mixed use centre, residential or industrial area. With this kind of system only around a dozen easily understood zoning areas, with a standardised colour scheme and naming system , would be needed.

Large growth areas are not the only areas where zoning has advantages but they are the areas where the advantages are most profound. High level zoning, such as in a strategic plan, is just the first planning step before completion can proceed but it is an essential step. By removing the duplication through the unique British requirement for a second approval of ‘as of right development’ zoning can facilitate moving on the next crucial stage subdivision and provide certainty for infrastructure financing and delivery. Most of the other advantages come at the subdivision stage but without ‘as of right’ zoning approval don’t come about. Again uniquely Britain doesn’t have a subdivision stage. This is done indirectly through outline consent of layout (very unsatisfactorily). Subdivision is crucial as without a parcel you don’t have an address and without an address you cant connect to utilities. Best practice internationally is that subdivided parcels become liable to property tax (which discourages excessive land banking) and completions are recorded automatically on electricity connection (a foolproof automated system).

The majority of your civil servants time should be spent on this subdivision stage as zoning for large sites through permission in principle is fairly easily achieved. Subdivision consent is harder. Making this work requires reform across a number of regulatory areas including address management and utilities registration, not just planning. Most of the changes required can be done through secondary legislation including reform of the outline planning consent system.

Good planning requires Good Masterplanning. Unusually the British system has no easy system for this. I would advise you to closely study the S106 agreements and consents for major urban extension sites such as Houghton near Rugby. The applications fill skips and the section 106 agreements and conditions fill hundred of pages. Most of which are to make into effect a subdivision scheme, master plan and design code – but in a flexible way which allows for phasing. Such enormous ‘hacks’ are needed because we don’t have a consent system which mirrors precisely the stages of masterplanning, i.e. concept, schematic etc. to final etc. whilst allowing different phases of a development to be at different stages.

Allocation of a site doesnt require a full concept design, it just requires a site area. However that area is unlikely to be accurate unless their is a concept layout as a ‘test fit’ to ensure non developable areas (such as open space, schools and community facilities) are calculated accurately. This process is known as ‘exaction’ as these areas are those typically handed over to the community with land value uplift calculated on the remainder (if this is part of the process). For this reason it is encouraged that local planning authorities to have the capacity to do this, either to challenge proposals by the private sector and improve design or to bring forward proposals in areas with complex land ownership. This is the common and well functioning process on the continent and described in the Letwin review. It is at schematic stage that plots are assigned and building footprints and roads defined. A revised outline consent should have a sites tracks – with reserved matters as now, and a masterplan track, with concept, schematic and final stages. The masterplan track should recognise that each stage should be based on the previous stage whilst allowing for moderate variation to account for design development without requiring variation of earlier stage consents.

A subdivision scheme has many advantages which are somewhat undersold in the White Paper:

  • It allows for organic delivery of a masterplan amongst many developers and landowners and particularly favors small developers and custom builders who develop small subdivisions within a larger masterplan.
  • It has enables gridded layouts which have many advantages in terms of delivery, accessibility and urban design.
  • Bulk Zoning regulations can be set for an area once subdivision defines zoning districts – either in a form based code or design code. (the government should be using the internationally accepted term ‘form based code’ rather than ‘design code’ – as the former is embodied within a plan and the latter has to be tacked on because of lack of statutory provision).
  • It makes land valuation easy – as all non sellable areas (including affordable housing) are handed over through the exaction process, and hence makes easy calculation of any land value capture.
  • Planning a masterplan scale enables innovation, such as zero carbon planning and planning for radical improvements for cyclists and walkers.

This kind of approach makes planning for areas with multiple land owners much easier. It doesn’t depend on a single landowner or consortium promoting large sites. Well connected sites near major cities and transport nodes are by their nature likely be smaller land ownership as their higher land values encourages subdivision. This means that sites promoted through the dysfunctional call for sites process are more likely to be in inaccessible and remoter rural locations on the lands of great estates.

A masterplan promoted on land in multiple ownership however has key disadvantages. Their will be disputes over how much land is worth if one land holding say has 35% exaction for public uses and roads and another has 45%. The owners of the main accesses to sites may also claim ransom strip values. We know how to fix this. The land redistribution rules pioneered in Germany, Japan and the Philippines has been a key component in their economic success, enabling more rapid urban expansion. The sellable plots are redistributed to each land owner retainimg a proportion equal to equal exaction of non sellable areas normalized across all plots. This reform is essential as it enables the proactive publicly led masterplanning and rapid delivery of major sites with see in comparator countries.

I recommend that the first substantive planning act that comes forward after introducing changes that cannot be delivered through non statutory means. This should be confined to three sections only:

  1. Introducing a land readjustment system
  2. Targetted reform of the New Towns Act to bring it up to date
  3. Deletion of section 14 of the Land Compensation Act 1961 as this is incompatible with land readjustment, and replacement by a rule of compensation being 25% of land value uplift after exaction (which is similar the common law rule prior to 1948).

The current system of land compensation relies on the ‘ponte gourd’ rule that no account should be taken of uplift of land value created by public acts. So if for example a major urban extension requires a new road delivered by the public no hope value can be claimed. Though promoted by Homes England as an alterative to reform of the Land Compensation Act this has proved extraordinarily difficult and impossible to deliver except in a minority of cases (such as Horsham). If local authorities cannot afford the advance infrastructure and require developers to pay it destroys the cases. Similarly transport authorities are reluctant to say new infrastructure will require new developments they say it is required anyway. This is shown most forcefully by the failure of the North Essex Garden communities, where infrastructure programmes became disconnected from new communities and hence because Ponte Gorde could not be demonstrated the schemes became unviable at hope value. The government needs to study the reason for the frequent failure of large programmes like NEGC and WESP.

Does it really make a difference adding provision for land readjustment. Yes it does as without it many of the advantages of a zoning AND subdivision system are not realised, it must stand on one leg. The UK is almost the only European country without provision for land readjustment. Without them you deny the possibility for plan – led and design led schemes on the best and most accessible sites unhindered by complex, uncooperative and greedy land ownership interests, whilst preserving in full the rights of those interests to realize a realistic land value and out forward their own proposals for sites for independent review.

Such a pragmatic approach to legislation overcomes there is unlikely to be a parliamentary majority to force through the nationalisation of housing targets.

I turn now to the supporting pillars that would make a more proactive form based zoning system deliver results for large sites.

The first concerns the location of large growth areas for which zoning based ‘as of right’ development would take place. Ideally local plans should determine the location of these. Very few have. The only two cases where local plans have allocated land for new settlements – South Cambridgeshire and East Devon, were where strategies established in now abolished structure plans were carried forward. The localist reforms of 2014 assumed strategic planning – which allocates large scale growth areas and redistribution of housing targets between highly constrained and less constrained areas, would be replaced by spontaneous locally led growth away from the Green Belt. This hasn’t happened. All of the 25 or so areas Eric Pickles said in press releases were saved from loss of Green Belt have now proposed similar or larger loss of Green Belt. The whole basis of the change has been proved to be bogus. Housing numbers in local plans fell and have never recovered as local plan progress slowed to crawl. New style joint strategic plans, on the West of England model, have all failed. The only strategic plans that have succeeded have been full joint local plans such as in South Northamptonshire, South Devon and Greater Norwich. The Duty to Cooperate has proven necessary but weak and a longwinded way for authorities that don’t want to take their fair share to face reality.

The assumption in the white paper appeared to be that new larger unitary authorities would carry out all planning, strategic and local, and so strategic planning is not mentioned in the white paper at all. This is a no longer tenable assumption for two reasons. Firstly wholesale unitarization is now off the agenda. Secondly only part of the issues strategic planning deal with would be dealt with within the new unitary boundaries. Overspill of need from heavily land constrained areas such as the West Midlands, Slough, Bristol and especially Greater London is not. Plan examinations such as Greater London have now definitively established what the level of achievable development in major urban areas is. The government has acknowledged there is an issue of redistribution from land constrained areas is, such as in the ARC, but has always resiled from setting out what this level is and where it will go. This is the elephant in the room for English planning. Without a solution to the overspill problem he national target of 320,000+ per annum will never be met, as any needs based formula will allocate so much housing will be allocated to heavily land or policy constrained areas.

I recommend a systematic solution. A solution logically must have three components, secondly a mechanism of where development goes, thirdly a scheme of redistribution where there are gaps between need and local capacity.

The government made a disastrous choice of consulting on changes to the Objectively Assessed Needs formula (I termed the phrase objectively assessed need) at the same time as a binding national formula under the current system. Then undermining the new system by saying the formula was just the starting point prior to constraints, when the new system proposed to take into account constraints. Now the government is unlikely to be able to have the numbers to pass a binding national formula. We are living with a disastrous policy choice made in opposition to let local planning authorities set their own numbers. This led to national added up numbers falling by a third. It also led to giving too many degrees of freedom to local plan making bodies; every time there was a tough choice on a tough site the Nimby cop out was simply to reduce housing targets and let England, nationally, fall ever further behind meeting housing need.

Local plan performance has grown ever more poor. Numerous ‘reforms’ have been counterproductive in slowing plan making. Local politicians have been reluctant to prioritise local plan making as the results are seen as politically toxic, Even those authorities that have prioritised plan making have been punished by an examination system that seems packed against them.

There have been three main causes for problems with local plans:

  1. Uncertainties over housing targets planned for;
  2. Weak structures of plan governance, programme management and leadership;
  3. No clear methodology for deciding where to place strategic scale development.

I have long called for the standardisation of objective assessment of housing need. The introduction of a standard method has helped in a small way reducing arguments over numbers slowing plan making and making national targets unachievable. Much of these gains were reduced by the uncertainty caused by the reductions implied by the 2018 based projections. The government accepted my recommendation for a temporary return to the 2016 based forecasts. In announcing it the minister quoted my writing ‘Households will not form if there is no house for them to form into’. There were also problems which took far too long to recognise for the botched formula leading to reductions in targets for many northern cities. For example Leeds taking record time to revise its local plans to remove already allocated sites. Many problems with the formula and the political fallout of increased numbers were tempered by the capping of rises. However this meant the government had one policy to set a national target and another policy which mean that local targets when added up could not meet it – it could not stand.

The government needs to be more transparent in publishing the spreadsheets that calculate the formula.

The baseline should be based solely around need and be super simple so it cannot be accused of being a ‘mutant algorithm’ . It should be defined solely around dividing the national housing need between authorities based on their existing population (not houses). Dividing between housing units not population leads to bias against urban areas which have higher household sizes. Doing it this was makes it inarguable that the distribution is fair. Each person would be one unit of need. It would be algorithm free.

This would be a distribution of need not a distribution of targets. You cant do this efficiently without a plan. A formula cannot efficiently match housing, employment growth and infrastructure provision over the long term. Only a plan can do this. Doing it without a plan leads to all the pain and criticism being born by central government without it having the opportunity to make clear plan choices. It also exacerbates ‘plan free’ reinforcing circular trends such as areas that have resisted growth in the past being projected forward and vice versa.

Whenever there is a formula that shifts need around above or below a demographic baseline – such as for affordability – then it implies movement from one place to another, usually based on job growth, with internal or international migration. This can only be done through an integrated regional economic model not a crude spreadsheet. The current formula implies people moving from the north to the south – contrary to national policy on levelling up the north. In order to avoid repetition of the fiasco over the mutant algorithm the government needs to ask itself where will people be moving from to fill the new jobs implied by the extra houses from the affordability element? The only rational way to do this is through a series of regional demographic-economic models with a national reconciliation factor (broadly the process in the Irish national plan).

If the OAN formula returns to its true role as a measure of need solely then a mechanism is needed for taking account of affordability and varying employment growth, land and environmental constraints. This mechanism is strategic planning. The term strategic planning is not mentioned in the planning white paper. Formal strategic planning was abolished in 2014 over concern of central government imposing targets. This failed and now we back are back to centrally imposed targets without any plan. This could never work, didn’t work and will never work. Planning reform needs to enthusiastically embrace strategic planning.

Strategic Planning is essential but all attempts to rebuild and do new kinds of strategic plan since 2004 have failed, every single one. Notable failures being West of England and North Essex, despite being promoted as model ways forward. It is important for government to understand what the USP of strategic planning is and why the various structures formed since 2004, with only tentative central government support, have failed.

Successful strategic planning depends on understanding what the USP of strategic planning is. What a strategic plan can do which only a strategic plan can do is allocate areas for development or protection on a strategic scale. That is on the scale of a settlement 2,500 to 5,000 dwellings or more. Such plans have failed because of problems of governance, project management and methodology. Governance structures have been weak and informal. One or more constituents are reluctant slowing things down, threating to withdraw or withdrawing because of a distrust of the whole process. The Duty to Cooperate process has been weak. The policy test in particular is anachronous in that it is a test of process not outcome. Simply dropping the DTC test is a world without universal unitaries and where many strategic issues such as overspill from metropolitan land constrained areas don’t fit within single city regions wont work. Similarly giving the power to Combined Authority mayors wont work in many settings. Many combined authority mayors have no planning powers (such as west midlands) leading to unhelpful public divisions. In Cambridgeshire and Peterborough the divisions and weak management has become farcical. In some cases such as the Black Country and West Midlands the strategic issues stretch well beyond the metropolitan areas.

Joint planning has had very weak leadership. The requirements for unanimity has resulted in no clear leadership figures emerging. Planning officers have had no experience in strategic planning and seek to ‘scale up’ local plan evidence work, with disastrous results. There have been no attempts to set up PMOs with professionally qualified project managers, and no clear political leadership figures. Engagement and joint working with infrastructure bodies has been woeful and Highways England has been as ever uniquely unhelpful.

The even bigger problem has been one of methodology. There has been limited progress in methodologies in strategic planning in a generation (I am currently completing a book on new methodologies – and early results of the model were used to influence recommendations to the NIC 4 years ago that 4-5 large new settlements were the optimum for the arc). A strategic planning methodology needs to be able to model and evaluate several alternative combinations of strategic locations and inform the SEA decision. None of the new round of strategic plans have done this. They have either not consulted on alternative strategies or have consulted on individual sites without looking at cumulative impact of a strategy.

The duty to cooperate should be replaced by a duty to participate in binding strategic planning arrangements. These should pass four tests.

  1. a binding democratic majority vote government structure covering most of a functional economic area (a few unitaries such as Cornwall will meet this test alone)
  2. a clear leadership structure led by an independent programme director
  3. a clear mandate to produce the strategic polices and define the strategic development, infrastructure locations and programmes meeting the vision and objectives defined for the area to inform the zoning plan(s) for the area.
  4. a binding commitment to meet national housing targets including a contribution to meeting overspill housing from other land constrained regions.

The key aspects of these tests are they are met at the beginning not the end of the process. Providing the commitments are met they need not be tested again. Stakeholders would be invited to put forward spatially specific locations that met the overall control totals for development. Then the only test that would be made at examination is whether the most sustainable options had been chosen. The binding examination panel having the option to choose another options. Failure at examination would not be an option for plan production processes that have been tested by a quality control body such as PINS.

The examination process should be a simple process taking days not years. PINS have become too involved in detail of plan specific detail rather than taking a high level quality control process. Asking 150 questions at examination practice is bad practice. Making hundreds of pages of modifications and long reports in multiple parts which cannot be easily read as a single document/narrative except to professional involved in the process is bad practice. For a strategic plan more evidence does not lead to a better plan. The time and cost of its collections harms the plan as a whole. It is better to confirm information overload by limiting evidence to that only required to make fast and frugal strategic decisions (This is a major finding from my book taken from contemporary decision theory).

The strategic level would then be the level at which examinations would take place. Zoning level plans, provided they generally conformed with the strategic plan and met national policy, unless CPO was involved.

Turning to local plans this is the stage at which the high level subdivision of sites, showing main open spaces, collector roads and public buildings are set out.

The suggestion of simpler local plans is welcome. The suggestion of local plans being stripped back to zoning only documents is not. Zoning without planning, without a vision, or policy objectives or strategy, has been found universally to be a bad idea. It can and has led to plans where zoning is made or influence of power, class or race and at worse become rationally exclusionary documents. Good zoning requires good planning. There is no short cut.

As suggested existing local plans can add zoning for major sites in much like their current form. Then the next two stages of reform would be to enable good subdivision and masterplanning, with the third phase reforming strategic planning and the fourth form based zonig of existing developed areas. Wholesale reform to zoning based local plans need only be a fifth phase of reform. Most of the benefits of zoning can be enabled in prior phases can be enabled in prior phases. Visions, and strategic policies to define the location and form of strategic development are in many cases best done at strategic scale except in those cases where a strategic and local plan are merged. Much of local plan policy can be replaced by standardised policy. We have seen in London local plans reducing in scale because of standardization at London Scale. The reform of local plans cannot take place rapidly because it requires wholesale reform of the NPPF as a clear policy based and precise document rather than rambling, dogmatic and imprecise prose artificially constrained to a word limit and with logically interterwined and conflicting tests – Welsh and Scottish national plans are better examples. As ever devolution has exposed the archaic nature of English governance. The standardisation of policy will be a year long joint effort between national and regional planning bodies.

There are many reasons why reform should not replace one set of local plans with another but should carry on as normal with rolling changes. Local planning authorities would be foolish to begin the expensive process of replacing local plans without any idea of the final form of legislation, national policy or guidance. Sadly your latest advice letter simply requires them to jump off a cliff with the vague promise there will be water at the bottom before they land. this is not good advice which no wise authority would follow. Rather all progress on local plans will grind to a halt until a realistic and phased programme of realistic reform is in place.

Overall the white paper is lacking in vision. There is a crying need for new strategic planning for a zero carbon future. With transport, development, infrastructure and natural capital planning developing regional ‘net or negative’ carbon networks. Carbon negative planning is possible whereby integrated spatial systems such carbon from the air – literally town planning saves the earth. These mechanisms are well established but require infrastructure networks to be ‘plugged in’ to natural carbon and nitrogen cycles, so for example waste disposal systems produced fertilizer for carbon sinks. This is the only geoengineering that works. This requires plans they set out regional and subregional Bus Rapid Transit systems (as we see on the continent) so that growth areas are not car based from day one, and the wholesale adoption of Dutch CROW cycling standards to urban design. On building it means a shift away from concrete and brick to modular transverse laminated timber methods (as pioneered by Swan) The lack of ambition and attention of the government on zero carbon planning is woeful.

Turning to the zoning or existing urban areas (or regeneration areas as they are called in the white paper) this is important but should be a lesser priority than zoning for growth areas and then development of form based codes for these areas. It is far more labour intensive to analyze areas by character and develop area specific form based codes. Hence it should be done as a later phase of reform requiring minimal legislative change. They should focus on areas with the greatest potential for densification, such as low density areas nearest stations. They should allow for intensification ‘as of right’ a good but very crude example being Croydon’s three storey minimum policy. There should not be an obsession with making zoning comprehensive. There will always be a need for an overlay of design control in the most sensitive areas, such as villages, national parks etc. Indeed the government should avoid scaring the horses by making clear areas such as these SSSIs, ancient woodlands etc. where change will be minimal.

Part of the lack of vision is the absence of mention of Garden Communities. Given the principal problem the government faces is how to build homes and urbanise without sprawl this absence is particularly shocking as the Garden Community offers a ready model for delivery quality and capturing land value.

Finally I turn to the issue of infrastructure payments. The proposal for a planning gain supplement style system with affordable housing ‘in kind’ is sensible as it offers the potential for a universal system for infrastructure payments rather than the scattered and complex three way current system of CIL, S106 and Affordable housing with very different systems operating for small sites and large ‘zero rated’ sites. However such a system can only work if a subdivision system is implemented, as the Letwin review recognised. This approach would operate as follows:

  1. At the point of project subdivision the ‘zero rated’ land that enables the development is exacted by the public sector – e.g. roads at no cost
  2. At the same point land for public services, schools, open space, affordable housing etc. would be exacted at its current use value, as this would have a low existing use without the planning scheme.
  3. At the same point the private landowners would pay the first phase payment of say 25% of uplift of the ‘sellable’ plots – sufficient for the public sector to pay for the non sellable public service plots.
  4. The sellable plots would have their value pooled in a land redistribution arrangement
  5. Where land owners refuse to take part of a masterplanning/land pooling scheme a development corporation would cpo at existing land use value plus a 25% compensation for uplift on all ‘sellable’ plots.

This seems complex but is very similar to the land subdivision system used in Germany and the Netherlands and as recommended in the Letwin review.

4 thoughts on “An Open Letter to @joannaaverley on Planning Reform

  1. Pingback: Wrong reforms proposed for planning | Just Space

  2. Pingback: So much for our “Protected Green Belt”? | Canvey Green Belt Campaign

  3. Having got the end, a little out of breath, I wanted to support much of what is said. If we cannot learn from the rest of the world, let us at least try to learn from places that have grown well.

    I was delighted that Good Cities Better Lives was praised and suggest looking to France on infrastructure planning, and a country like Denmark on land value capture. We surely cannot afford making irretrievable mistakes again and adding additional risks. In our current precarious situation.; we should beware of cutting red tape lengthwise, and instead concentrate changes where they will produce best results!

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