New York – The Classic Example of Why Zoning Alone is Not Planning

Three things you can do with NYC's new zoning and land use map - Curbed NY

A comment on Twitter yesterday on a planning White Paper seminar – by ASI maybe – Zoning is not a panacea – 75 percent of New York developments being contrary to code.

I agree as a big, and early, advocate of zoning. But its important to understand why.

New York has a zoning code but never had a comprehensive plan – as we would understand it today. It has been updated piece by piece and has become so complicated and bound by involvement of the courts some say it will never be properly reformed and replaced. Just look at the crazy patchwork quilt of its zoning map where zoning varies not by zoning district but often by building. Though the successful replacement of outdated codes by places such as Miami and Minneapolis shows it can be done.

Development contrary to zoning is known as spot zoning – or an exemption. In New York you pay a 100k fee and go through a seven month review process. A process that as a result favours big developers. So New York has evolved into a UK like discretionary system by default. It is not planning by zoning, it is regulation by discretion.

A fair and modern zoning code would see the large majority of development allowed ‘by right’ with only a small majority of cases allowed as exemptions. A fair system would make spot zoning difficult but would be equally open to small developers, small businesses and householders.

If you have zoning without planning you get an inevitable reversion to a discretionary system. This is also why the time it takes for revision of zoning as planning codes is not a good test of the time it takes to prepare a proper zoning plan. It is not just creating elegant simplicity but disentangling a Gordian knot of complexity.

This is also where the Planning White Paper doesn’t get it. Zoning Plans are not just sets of standards. They are plans with a clear strategy of policies. This is the only way to ensure plans are fair and guided by principles (such as zero carbon). Without that strategy they are just wall to wall spot zones likely simply to reflect who lobbied hardest at call for sites stages and without a framework to test their soundness in whatever form. Without an explicate framework of strategy and policy zoning maps and standards simply include hidden assumptions and reflect the prejudices and power of those that drew them up. The classic example being how in the early 20th century zoning was used to subvert a supreme court ruling banning racially exclusionary zoning by setting zones and standards that achieved segregationist objectives through economic means,

An Innovative Strategy for The San Francisco Bay Area


An excellent and innovative study by AECOM for SPUR on future growth in the San Fran Bay area. I must declare an interest i’m an AECOM employee, however I am finishing off a book on new GIS based methods for allocating growth targets across regiona soi I do have some positive comments.

First the method. It divides the area into raster cells, called place types, on 1/2 mile width based on urban morphology/typology.

This reminds me of the Turley ‘typical urban areas’ approach used in the UK about 15 years ago. This was widely used and widely criticised and then dropped. It was based on historic built rates and projecting them forward rather than specific sites. The SPUR study is based on average estimates of future potential. For policy the key issue is the difference between build rates now and the impact of zoning on build rates in the future. Here I would like to see more evidence on how future build rates are estimated. The build rates for the dense urban mix implies a population density greater than the densest places on earth, such as parts of Shanghai and a 80 to 1+ FAR, which seems high to me.

Another point I would make is the use of square rasters, which makes modelling on travel times and accessibility hard. I would recommend the use of hex bins instead. As in the Planagon method I have been developing and used successfully on projects in several countries now.

The biggest criticism of the typology based approach was that it didn’t consider the potential of specific sites whether brownfield or greenfield and for that you need some means of measuring the sustainability of the individual cell.

What is striking looking at the above map is the lack of dense urban centres. They simply arnt where they should be such as Central San Jose or Fremont, or along the central valley to LA (which urban economics suggest would be the best place). We dont have dense corridors of urbanism or the kind of RT systems to serve them. Also large non protected areas which are potentially highly accessible (former railway lines) exist – such as the Rio Visat/Birds Landing area where you could fit a new Garden City twice the size of San Francisco. One problem with a pure upzoning scenairo is it happens, but slowly, and often too slowly to provide enough early and mid phase development. For that you will almost always need some greenfield sites and large ones at that. Its a stock/flow issue.

A thought provoking and excellently illustrated study which should lay the foundations for future thinking in the area.

A Zero Algorithm Approach to Setting Housing Need

The government has got itself into a pickle in the new housing needs formula. It barely got itself out of a hole on the ‘OANishambles’ of the last household projections – with these going down. It recognised that the old formula repressed growth of fast growing northern cities but didn’t bother to check the results – the new formula weighed so little the housing stock component it made matters worse not better.

It was inevitable that the ‘cap’ on housing would have to go, but as soon as it did it implied massive growth in many areas to make the figures match the 300,000 plus national target.

Originally it was an objective assessment of need only. Not a plan target. It stated where need came from, plans and strategic plans should reallocate that need based on market conditions, growth infrastructure and constraints. But without strategic plans there was no system for reallocation. Especially from tightly bounded land constrained areas such as London. This raised the prospect of major growth in highly constrained rural areas that would never be candidate growth areas. It was unnecessarily asking for trouble.

The White Paper also implied that from being a starting point it would evolve to take account of constraints to being a defacto centrally directed plan – but without any strategy or vision to move housing around the national map.

The housing minister in reassuring back benchers that in the ‘short term’ this was just the ‘starting point’ implied ‘in the long term we will clobber you’ hardly an effective strategy.

To be fair need has to be unchallengeable. It needs to go back to being an objective measure of need (I termed OAN). Lets keep it simple and unchallengeable. Lets take the ONS 2019 based population projections for 2043 and reallocate it based on 237,000 per annum/per annum population to 2043 per LPA, and simply sum it up. The assumption being one person is one unit of housing need and everyone is treated the same.

Each LPA would then have a legal duty to ensure that need is met, either through there own plan or through taking part in joint planning arrangements with other authortities.

Most new plan will be for large areas – i.e. Buckinghamshire, West Kent East Kent – mirroring reorganized LPAs. There will however be large growth areas that cross than such as the ARC, as well as the age old problem of allocating overspill growth from London, Birmingham, Bristol, even Slough.

Here I have a simple suggestion. Put the decisions to grand committees of MPs sitting on a regional basis, such as for ROSE and the Arc. This would force MPs to act responsibly and take ownership of issues rather than most seeing stopping growth as their local campaign whilst proposing growth goes elsewhere undefined.

Preparation of regional advice on growth locations could be done through regional informal groupings, led by LEPS, Combined authorities and local authorities, as now. But the decision would be made by MPs upon recommendations by the SoS and his or her advisors (EiP panels). The SoS could also sweeten the pill for growth areas through a standard formula based on the redistributed housing numbers.

What we have learned from countries that build more is the need for central, regional and local governments to work in partnership. These proposals would set out clear roles for each level of government. To get plans through on strict statutory timescale the planning and involvement of MPs would have to be years in advance. No more washing of hands after the EiPs have concluded and crying to the SoS for special treatment.

Opposition to New Housing needs Formula Greater than Government Majority – Inews


Downing Street is facing a furious rebellion of up to 70 Tory MPs over plans to overhaul the planning system in a bid to radically boost house building across England.

Senior Conservatives are poised to ambush the Government with a series of backbench debates on planning reform in the coming weeks that will provide dozens of MPs the opportunity to attack the proposals.

The move is to send a signal to No10 over its plans to introduce an algorithm into the heart of the planning system that will determine how many houses should be built in each area in order to meet the Government’s promise to build 300,000 new houses a year.

Johnson warnings

Several analyses of the algorithm have shown it will lead to a major increase in housing in Tory-held shires and suburbs, as well as rural parts of the north, but force a decrease in housing in more Labour dominated urban areas.

Boris Johnson is now facing warnings that the proposals, which are currently at consultation stage, will not get through the Commons as the opposition on the Tory benches is “bigger than his majority”.

Tory MPs are expected to stage a debate on planning reform in the coming weeks to display the level of anger to Downing Street with the aim of forcing a fresh u-turn.

This will then be followed up by a series of debates on local planning in the counties staged by individual MPs to ram the point home.

One Tory backbencher, who described themselves as a government loyalist, said the anger over the plans runs “deeper than No10 realises” and laid the blame at the door of Mr Johnson’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings.

“There are 40 of us regularly meeting about the issue, but easily  70 are opposed to it, including ministers and government whips.”

Downing Street is eager to push through the policy as part of sweeping reforms to the planning system, which it sees as vital to consolidating its control in former Red Wall seats. But MPs fear it could backfire in local elections next year and in the general election in four years time.

“This is being driven by Cummings and No10. [Housing Secretary] Robert Jenrick doesn’t have the political leeway to push back because he is on borrowed time. No10 is determined to push it through because Cummings hates the Conservative Party, he hates Conservative MPs and he hates Conservative members,” the source added.

Change to come

The Prime Minister and Mr Jenrick have been listening to MPs’ concerns, but no changes have yet been forthcoming.

Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire, said he was “optimistic” the plans would be dropped following meetings with the Housing Secretary last week.

“The algorithm is flawed,” Mr Bridgen said. “And I think they are aware of this. If they do not reconsider then the plans will not get through the Commons. The number of MPs concerned by this is bigger than the Government’s majority.”

A Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesperson said: “Local housing need proposals provide a guide for councils on how many homes may be needed in their area and councils will still need to consider local circumstances to decide how many homes should be delivered.

“We are consulting on the proposals and will reflect on the feedback.”

This website ‘can reveal’ that Two lazy Mail on Sunday Journalists have read Nathaniel Litchfield and Conservative Home Websites on new Housing Needs Formula @AVMikhailova

The language is ridiculous and cliched as if written by a journobot – ‘leaked’. The real journalism these days is not on thoughtful blogs not ever more lazy newspapers. What is worse they don’t even state their sources to fake the fact they have done no real work.

Mail on Sunday

TCPA Planning White Paper – Democracy is Not the Same as a Right to Hear Every Objector in a Multi-Year long EIP

TCPA Planning White Paper FAQs

The White Paper suggests in paragraph 2.48, under stage 4, that people’s right to be heard in person [for local plans] will be changed. The paper states that inspectors will now have discretion as to what form an objector’s representations might take. Under paragraph 2.53, which is an alternative option to the one set out in paragraph 2.48, the paper goes even further and suggests any form of ‘right to be heard’ might be removed .  The right to be heard at Section 20 of the 2004 Planning Act is the only clear civil right that exists in the planning process for the individual citizen. The right includes the important phrase ‘in person’ in order to allow an individual to appear in front of an inspector and exercise other opportunities to cross examine witnesses.  So, the opportunity to appear at a public inquiry has been replaced with the opportunity for an inspector to have a telephone conversation with you, or ask for further written comments, if they choose to do so. This is not an increase in democratisation. 

Prior to the 2004 Act there was a right to be heard in person only for local plans and CPO, not for structure plans. That was the distinction between public inquiries and Examinations in Public. The 2004 act reforms were intended to introduce EiPs for local plans. Under pressure in parliment Lord Falconer introduced section 20 – its has failed.

There is nothing about representative democracy that implies a right to be heard. Indeed they are designed to reduce and eliminate the right to be heard so that decisions can be made in a reasonable time and debated by a reasonable number of people. If you want a say you right to your MP or belong to a lobby group who lobbies them directly. There are other models of democracy – such as direct democracy where there is a right to be heard. They work well for neighborhood plans and local plans scoping. These do not scale well for major decisions where 1000s of people demand a say. Rather than EiPs opening and closing in a week they can now sometimes last years (though there are many reasons for this).

So all this talk of loss of democracy – lets call a spade a spade – is bullshit. If your model of democracy is representative democracy its more democratisation by ensuring the will of the people on strategic decisions – such as building more housing – are implemented against the attempts to block those decisions by a wealthy minority opposing development and using legal blocking tactics. Planning reform must mean local plan EiPs taking weeks not years. Its a ‘measly right’ as it rarely changes anything and is a weak means of purely negative engagement. That must mean reform so that they become examinations by questioning panels as they were originally designed for. Listening to the dozens of people raising exactly the same point made 1,000s of times in written representations. How is that democracy?

The Shocking Resistance to Progressive Planning Reform by the Traditionalist Environmental Lobby


Hasty planning reform

SIR – As a broad coalition of planning, heritage and environmental organisations, we are united in our vision for what is needed to deliver affordable, good-quality homes, while protecting our precious green spaces, and putting local people at the heart of decision-making.

The planning system needs careful, sensible reform rather than the major, hurried and untested changes set out in the Government’s planning White Paper, which is akin to demolishing the whole house just to mend the roof.

The planning system may not be perfect, but we urge the Government to rethink its White Paper, as it is not the answer to boosting economic growth post-coronavirus. Nine in 10 applications are already approved by councils, and the 10 biggest developers have more than 400,000 plots in their land banks. Hundreds of thousands of homes that could be built are not.

Ministers should invest in an evidence-led planning system that is empowered to meet the Government’s environmental, social and economic objectives.

Clare Blencowe
Chairman, Association of Local Environmental Records Centres

Dominic Dyer
Chief Executive, Badger Trust

Craig Macadam
Conservation Director, Buglife

Anita Konrad
Chief Executive, Campaign for National Parks

Neil Redfern
Executive Director, Council for British Archaeology

Dr James Robinson
Director of Conservation, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust

Crispin Truman
Chief Executive, Campaign to Protect Rural England

Kate Gordon
Senior Planner, Friends of the Earth

Doug Parr
Policy Director, Greenpeace UK

Lizzie Glithero-West
Chief Executive, Heritage alliance

Kate Ashbrook
General Secretary, Open Space Society

Tanya Curry
Interim CEO, Ramblers

Vicky Wyatt
Director of Campaigns, SumOfUs

Hugh Ellis
Policy Director, Town and Country Planning Association

Kit Stoner
Chief Executive, the Bat Conservation Trust

Tony Gent
Chief Executive Officer, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation

Ian Harvey
Executive Director, Civic Voice

Mark Lloyd
Chief Executive, The Rivers Trust

The problem is not the roof but the foundations. We build half the houses we need to. We have no real plan to restore biodiversity or to plan for carbon neutrality. The current system is unique in the world, other countries using a zoning system do better on all fronts. The system doesn’t work for bugs bats or badgers. Rather it only works for suburbanite Nimbys – those who already have assets, it only works for other environmental assets as long as little as possible gets built. Is that your aim for the planning system, Lets look at your claims.

Nine in 10 applications are already approved by councils

And 9 out of a 10 developers wont apply for planning permission of they are advised they wont get it. If you have too little land zoned the percentage granted is irrelevant

The 10 biggest developers have more than 400,000 plots in their land banks. Hundreds of thousands of homes that could be built are not.

Separate issue that needs fixing, but again irrelevant to the main question, if you build more quickly you need to zone new land more quickly\.

Yes the reform,s are hasty and ill though through. yes all dirigiste planning reforms sweeping all before them (including 1948 by the way), have failed. But there are pathways to pragmatic reform which dont require everything to change at once, including permission in principle in major growth zones and getting simpler local plans approved more quickly. That will require copartnerhsip between central and local government and a long overdue realisation that this requires strategic planning. It is beyond the skillsm resource sand powers of small local authorities to meet the housing and infrastructure gap.

Lets looks at the evidence. What do all of the countries that build more and better have in common – zoning and form based design codes. What do the best large housing areas in the UK have in common – design codes. There the evidence. What do all of the areas that need growth but build too little have in common, lack of strategic plans and excessive influence of purely negative campaign groups such as the CPRE. Where are the countries that have most success in reversing biodiversity loss – the Netherlands and Austria which have comprehensive landscape scale zoning plans for natural restoration. We have 70 years of evidence.

Housing Minister – New Standard Method Numbers Arn’t Set in Stone

Conservative Home

The problem – under the duty to cooperate there was a requirement to meet unmet need from other areas. Without it numbers will be pushed one way only – down – and incorrectly the Green Belt will be seen as an environment constraint not a policy constraint. It will result in a massive reduction in housing numbers. BTW its 337,000 not 300,000.

Christopher Pincher is Minister for Housing, and is MP for Tamworth.

Earlier this month, the government set out its ambition to introduce much needed reforms to bring our planning system into the twenty-first century.

Our aim: to get the country building better-designed, more environmentally-friendly homes and help people onto the housing ladder.

Alongside these longer-term reforms, we are consulting on shorter term interventions in the current system to align it with our housing goals: building 300,000 homes a year and tackling housing affordability.

One of these interventions, the methodology for calculating local housing need within the current system that we are consulting on, has attracted some comment. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the contentious nature of our present planning system and all prior changes to the methodology, but for those who are involved in crucial work of planning for our communities, I want to set out what we are consulting on and why.

In 2018, we introduced a standard, transparent method to determine how many houses were needed in an area. The previous system involved councils employing costly consultants to estimate their housing need – too often with the final numbers being heavily contested. There was uncertainty, there were long delays, and all the while the country was not planning for the homes that are so desperately needed.

This standard method was designed to speed up the system and ensure the planning process focused on how and where homes can best be built.

It has been over two years since that formula was introduced, so we committed earlier in 2020 to review it and consult on the balance between our three objectives:

First, to equip councils with the tools they need to plan for 300,000 homes a year. Everyone wants their children and grandchildren to have somewhere to live – so we have to plan for those homes. We need local communities to be honest about the scale of housing need for which we need to plan.

Second, and in line with our commitment to protecting the Green Belt and to prioritise brownfield development, we want development to be directed to existing urban areas and level up our towns and cities with imaginative urban renewal. This makes sense when you consider that 76 per cent of local housing need is in council areas classified by the Office for National Statistics as urban.

And third, to build homes where people want to live, where the demand for housing is clear, where prices are higher and, in many cases, affordability is getting worse.

We are keen to make sure we get this balance right.

So it is important to stress the standard method is only the first step in the current local plan process – the numbers generated for an area’s housing need will not necessarily be the same as their ultimate targets.

That’s because councils will take into account various constraints in their areas, including protecting their Green Belt and environmentally significant sites. Nor does it dictate where those homes should go. Both are important aspects of the system which rest with local councillors to determine.

It was a Conservative government that got rid of top-down regional planning targets, and introduced a-locally led system, which takes account of local need and local constraints. Localism requires local decision-making – and our system puts councillors at the forefront of those decisions.

Our longer term planning reforms, set out in the Planning for the Future paper, are an opportunity for us to embrace a planning system which puts councillors and communities in the driving seat of designing their neighbourhoods and puts creating beautiful places that communities can be proud of at its heart.