“Planning for the Future” – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Inside MHCLG a group of people will be working on drafts and re-drafts of the promised Planning White Paper.  If it is based closely on the policy statement from Robert Jenrick after the March 2020 Budget it runs the risk of being a mix of ill-assorted and conflicting policy measures that will not add up to the comprehensive policy structure that is needed.  The “Planning for the Future” statement certainly contained a mix of the good, the bad and the downright ugly.

A full review of the planning system (including the legislative framework) was needed before Covid-19 highlighted so many of the defects.  We have not been producing enough new housing for decades and the quality of what we produce is sometimes all too inadequate.  Covid-19 has focused attention on space standards inside new homes and the environment around them.  The enforced changes in working practices also raise major questions about how we organize land uses and travel systems in urban areas.  This links directly to how effectively we plan for climate change mitigation.  These issues existed before the March statement, but are all the more pressing now.

There are good things in “Planning for the Future”.  These obviously include the promised Building Safety Bill, the awaited Social Housing White Paper and the Renters’ Reform Bill.  The first two measures link back to Grenfell Tower, addressing both the the issue of standards and responsibility and the stigma that has blighted the social housing sector.  There is a danger though that standards in existing buildings will not be fully addressed.  The Renters’ Reform Bill follows steady progress in recent years and reflects the importance of the private rented sector today.  A full reform of the leasehold system is also needed and is a gap in Mr Jenrick’s statement.  Introduction of the Future Homes Standard is definitely a good thing but the delay until 2025 is undesirable.  Mr Jenrick should also be given credit for the homelessness measures during the pandemic and it is hoped this progress continues.

On planning, the general wish to modernise the system, involve communities more and produce local plans more quickly obviously warrants a tick in the good column but the final verdict will of course rest on whether effective and practical measures are introduced.  Encouraging housing-led regeneration of high streets is probably now an inevitable policy response to changing demand for both retail and office space post-Covid.  Space standards in dwellings and access to recreational space will need more emphasis.  Building upwards over railway stations makes sense and a review of policy on flood risks is long overdue.  The idea of four new development corporations in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc shows ambition that matches post-war planning but will almost certainly hit local opposition.  Endorsement of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s recommendations will attract support but directly conflicts with a lot of the uglier ideas listed below. 

One of the bad things in “Planning for the Future” is its continuation of the myth that the one thing standing in the way of increased housing output is the planning system.  We know that permissions granted regularly exceed annual completions and the reasons for under-delivery are partly financial and partly to do with the structure of the house building industry and its prevailing business model.  Further changes to the planning system – even if warranted for other reasons – will not solve the production deficit.  “Planning for the Future” also continues the obsession with home ownership as the major policy tool.  It is worth pointing out that new home production has only ever hit the levels needed when there has been a mix of private and public construction and the output has included significant amounts of social housing for rent.  Increased production for this tenure is desperately needed and it is a more efficient use of public investment than schemes like Home Buy which are very loosely targeted and contribute to house price inflation.  It will be a major test for the proposed First Homes scheme that the public investment is not just swallowed up in land price hikes.

This leaves the ugly.  “Planning for the Future” promises more of the counter-productive tinkering that has harmed the planning system – and local environments – over the past decade.  The proposal for new permitted development rights to build two extra storeys on residential blocks falls in this category.  The concept that vacant industrial, commercial, or residential buildings should be demolished and replaced under permitted development by “well-designed new residential units which meet natural light standards” looks equally badly thought through.  The idea of “densifying gently” in existing residential neighbourhoods may not look quite so attractive post-pandemic.  Suggestions that a zoning approach should be adopted for Local Development Orders also show a conflict with the paper’s avowed objectives of creating beautiful, sustainable places or to “give local authorities the ability to ensure that new homes conform to local residents’ ideas of beauty through the planning system”.

We await publication of the Planning White Paper and the Chancellor’s proposals for economic recovery following the pandemic.  The ideas floated in “Planning for the Future” do not amount to a consistent way forward.  Something better is needed if we are going to have the means to deliver a truly sustainable future that learns from Covid-19 and faces up to the challenge of climate change.

Kim Penfold
June 2020