Some notes on how a Progressive Planning Reform Bill can Secure Consensus & Parliamentary Passage

Yesterday I published a draft of how a Planning Reform Bill might look. Consolidating all of the major planning acts into one and containing some major reforms. (i’ve slightly updated it today to include two minerals renewal clauses in other acts id forgotten to include).

The aim was twofold, to promote debate on Planning Reform, and secondly to show how the major changes could be done in a way which would ‘scare the horses’ or lead to the kind of backward steps from ‘tear it up and start again’ change we saw in the 2004 and 2011 acts.

I promised to do two more in detailed bogs to explain the changes. The third part will be detailed notes on the changes for each part of the suggested bill.

Todays post sets out broadly how the act would work and the kind of concessions I think the government needs to make to ensure broader agreement.

As I stated yesterday most of the opposition is of the ilk that housing is not nicely done, planning reform means more housing, so lets oppose planning reform. The government cant back down or even compromise in any way with that kind of “nimbyism’ opposition. What it can do though is break of the ‘hamster wheel of planning doom’ so that planning reform=better housing/development. This way it would reshape the narrative away from the past arguments that it was ‘liberalising’ planning, or removes the shackles from developers.

What many havn’t got is how zoning might work. The argument for zoning is a subtle one. Zoning produces more, better and better supported development in most countries that practice it with strong design controls. Why more? Because it is faster and more efficient in parceling land up amongst a wider range of developers (including SMEs and Custom Build) because its methodology is directly based on ‘parceling up’ or subdivision as it is known. Why better? because in its most advanced forms, such as on much of the continent and where ‘form based zoning’ is practiced over the pond the systems and rules are based around creating good masterplan and good design codes that embed the kind of qualities that produce attractive places and communities. Why better supported, because in the uk regulatory based system it is based in saying no, no, no, until a scheme to say yes to arrives. In a zoning and subdivision based system you say ‘do this you get a yes’ and ‘as of right’ as the jargon goes, no guesswork, no risk, no chance of a rogue decision. It is a fundamentally positive system where you actually design communities, streets and places. How many times have planners been asked ‘what do you do’ and then have to explain that planners don’t actually plan towns. If planners arn’t planning towns that is a sign of a fundamentally dysfunctional system. Imagine if dentists worked like that ‘I don’t actually fix teeth and look into mouths and say if i like it and get them to come back when they have pulled their own teeth out and ill see if I like it them.’

First of all what I suggest is a hybrid system of development control and zoning because it is impossible and undesirable for zoning based decisions to replace all decision based ones. This will be particularly true in many rural areas, conservation areas and for listed buildings, as it typically is in their equivalents abroad.

The draft act is based on familiar and fundamental concepts such as ‘planning permission’ now made much more universal. In current legislation there are many complex routes to getting a ‘consent’ all called different things. The act I suggest would be much simpler with a few core concepts. Being simpler it would be far easier for the public to get involved with rather than being the realm only of a technocratic elite of planning experts.

Similar and more map based local plans would be central. Called in the draft act ‘plans’ and not ‘documents’, Plans could contain ‘planning schemes’ which zone land. The term ‘planning scheme’ is from current legislation and was central to the pre 1948 early planning acts in the UK. A planning scheme can grant ‘permission in principle’ which here has much the same meaning as in Scottish legislation i.e. outline consent. This would be a planning permission, so a local plan could for example grant consent for 100 houses with access x. The fear amongst many opponents of reform would be that people wouldn’t get a second bite of the cherry at planning application stage and this would be undemocratic. This is misplaced. If the principle of development is accepted by a full council why need to establish it again. After all when you get outline permission now you cant contest the principle at reserved matters stage. We see in England far too many cases of local planning authorities allocating sites in local plans then refusing them at planning application stage, only then to inevitably lost at appeal and usually lose on costs. What a waste of time.

A genuine concern with zoning though is that often far too little detail and consideration is given to a local plan allocation. A subsection of my proposed act requires local planning authorities to consider and require evidence from site promoters that the fundamental planning issues are addressed, as they would be on an outline consent That could include for example ecological surveys, illustrative masterplans, traffic modelling etc. When local planning authorities don’t get sufficient information they can get it themselves and charge the promoters (or put a charge on the land for the cost). This frontloading of site planning will much involve local communities who can participate in site design and planning. This would lead to a much more proactive system less reliant on call for sites – where the easiest path of resistance bad sites get through rather than the hard work to get right best sites. This would be far less adversarial than the current ‘developer led’ system putting local communities in charge of place shaping, in partnership with development and land interests.

A second proposed concession is making the transition to zoning voluntary and gradual. It would be sensible if a planning authority has a well advanced local plan under the current system just to submit it. Then over time and gradually zoning could be introduced for the largest most strategic sites, moving down to cover over time rules for infill and neighborhood redevelopment.

I suggest a number of incentives to move towards zoning. The first of which is a stepping back of the Secretary of State from day to day intervention on planning applications, and on permitted development, and new duties and responsibilities to get the system to work at a national and strategic level, including hitting housebuilding targets and net zero development targets. To implement this I propose making the Planning Inspectorate totally independent, however I retain a special parliamentary procedure for some major infrastructure proposal where members of parliament petition for it. In every country with zoning Permitted development (PD) and use class rights are local responsibilities as they are contained in local plan based rules. We have to see the latest PD based blitz as frustrated ministers trying to zone in the absence of a zoning system. If local planning authorities produced zoning based plans they could take back control and issue their own development orders, within a flexible national framework of a reformed GPDO and UCO. Minsiters would have to be brave on this. But critically it completely disarms the argument that the reforms are because major developers lobbied for them (they havent) and that ministers are on the pockets of developers in granting consents.

A second major incentive would be around land value capture. I propose reform of the system for compensation and charging (planning obligations). Two Tory manifestos have promised to enable capture of much more uplift created by allocating land for development to fund infrastructure. Over the years the implementation of this has been botched. The assumption was that if you embodied the ‘Ponte Gourde’ rules into the act you could capture all of the value created by the scheme. It never worked because of a lack of clarity on what the ‘no scheme world’ was. This was most marked at North Essex Garden communities, where as a result the whole project became unviable. Through rewording of the offending clauses of the land compensation act there would be complete clarity, the no scheme world would be that before the planning scheme. Archaic nonsenses such as certificates of appropriate alternative development would be abolished, but baseline compensation and home loss payments would be increased.

I suggest a development charge at a fixed rate paid when houses are connected to electricity (the common practice around the world). This would be similar to the governments simplified charge however I suggest a structure, critically included the above land value capture rules, that would make it work, including annual charges when development is below the agreed build out rate. Crucially this only applies to sellable land, so planning obligations still ahev a crucial role in securing community facilities, planning obligations would also remain for up front payments for critical up front infrastructure (up front payments being deducted from the charge).

These reforms are critical to gaining a wider parliamentary base of support, giving many members what they have been asking for for years.

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