James Parker explores the sweeping reforms to the planning system

So Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, has announced a sweeping set of reforms to the planning system, in an attempt to resolve, or at least open up, a fundamental conundrum in the UK.

That being that we need masses of new houses built (300,000 a year, at least), but that in large parts, no-one wants them built in their back garden.

Jenrick is talking about ‘fast-tracking beauty,’ as well as promising carbon neutrality by 2050.

James Parker James Parker Editor of Architects Datafile

NIMBY

This wouldn’t be a problem if the louder community voices that prevent schemes going ahead didn’t turn out to be so powerful in stopping projects at the local planning level.

Despite this, defenders of planning authorities like the Local Government Association say that nine out of 10 applications are granted, and more pointedly for housebuilders, that a million outstanding approved homes remain unbuilt.

Arguably build-out rates are where the real problems lie for Jenrick, now he’s possibly found a way forward on getting around NIMBYism (the ‘Not In My Back Yard’ brigade).

Pre-approval

The new White Paper he has issued takes bold steps towards some form of ‘pre-approval’ to try and speed things up.

The interesting dynamic here is that where militant NIMBYs have prevented swathes of housing sites across the country from getting underway, Jenrick is seeking to put the decision of where this pre-approval (ie giving outline planning automatically to some schemes) will take place, into the hands of local communities.

Land will be divided into three categories via consultation on Local Plans between planners and communities (using new web-based tech to engage many more people).

A more predictable system

These categories are ‘Growth,’ ‘Renewal,’ or ‘Protected.’

In the first category, development will continue regardless of any local objections (but according to Design Guides agreed in the Local Plan), and the second could see something similar occurring, with some caveats.

The Housing Secretary wants the public voices to come into play early on instead, i.e. when the Local Plan is produced, to end up with a “more predictable and certain system which will enable people to get on and build,” as he told Radio 4.

Jenrick’s team is proposing to replace all planning law with this new system; this is big stuff. The question is obviously what happens if communities make the whole of their area ‘Protected’ in order to prevent any development, which is perfectly plausible.

Local politics

Such a system, if it genuinely gives the decision-making on their mix of zones to local people, runs the risk of those locals making whatever decision suits them, and which might not align with national goals.

This is the inherent snag for democratising the system, which suggests that the Government may have to leave itself some scope to step in and force the issue on zoning where needed.

Otherwise it will be even more subject to political wrangling locally, for example councillors being voted in on the basis of supporting, or refusing, particular schemes, or promising to reduce the ‘Growth’ zone, thereby skewing local politics in effect.

Up in arms

Architects have been up in arms that a move towards effectively giving pre-approval to zones of housing across the country could produce “the next generation of slums” (in the words of RIBA president Alan Jones).

But Jenrick is talking about ‘fast-tracking beauty,’ as well as promising carbon neutrality by 2050, and variation of housing designs.

This follows Oliver Letwin’s recommendations to move away from serried ranks of 3-bed boxes, as part of the solution to increasing absorption rates by making more homes suitable for a wider demographic – but how to get there doesn’t seem to be being prescribed in any formal way in the new proposals.

Design standards

Some have welcomed the White Paper, for example the Strategic Land Group, who say they will “Strip away complexity, and avoid the duplication of processes,” but also benefit the physical appropriateness of designs, “relying more heavily on technology to focus on what new development actually looks like.”

The group says the proposals “look to separate out decisions about the principle of development, from decisions about the form of development.”

This suggests that moving the discussion around design forward to the Local Plan stage will benefit the subsequent decision on schemes, i.e. that if they are designated for the ‘Growth’ zone, they will already have to adhere to certain design standards, these will not appear like skeletons out of closets once the planning application is reviewed.

As ever, however, there are little signs of how those design standards should be arrived at, or how thorough they will be.

Not radical enough

Other commentators like Bidwells have said that the White Paper isn’t radical enough, and leaves room for unpopular development which “will breed local discontent,” and also doesn’t allow for enough of a voice for business.

The Strategic Land Group points out a further glaring omission from the consultation, despite its seemingly far-reaching pronouncements.

That is that the issue of opening up the Green Belt for housing has been studiously avoided, with the push being for development on brownfield.

The Group sees this as the single biggest issue preventing proper planning of the UK’s towns, and until the Government has the courage to unlock this political Pandora’s Box, we might continue to struggle to see the delivery that they want, and the country needs. 

Given the poor quality of some of the Permitted Development refurbishments of commercial premises in city centres into housing, working sensitively at the fringes of settlements on appropriate housing should also be the focus, as part of the mix going forward.

There’s little sign of this being confronted openly yet, sadly.

James Parker is editor of Architects Datafile