By Leo Hammond, Associate Director - Urban Design
The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, is looking to overhaul the current planning system. Recent announcements suggest the possibility of zonal planning systems, more powers for development corporations and a new fast-track system for developers of high-quality, well-designed buildings. With the Planning White Paper due to be published in the coming months, we think it is timely to reflect on what improvements to the planning system are required.
State of flux
Over the last 10 years, the English planning system seems to have been in an almost constant state of flux, with the removal of regional planning, the introduction of localism and greater permitted development rights, to name but a few of the changes. Climate change and the Covid-19 crisis has brought the planning system and urban design into focus, with major implications for how the planning system addresses density, housing design, movement and the public realm in our changing world.
So rather than more tinkering with an ailing system, we suggest now is the opportunity to reboot the planning system with a major focus on urban design, climate change, health, certainty and speed. Our five point plan might go some way towards creating a perfect planning system:
A national planA national plan would add a much needed spatial dimension to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Spatial plans are successfully utilised in other countries, such as Holland and Ireland, to sustainably link up strategies for housing with those for public transport, open spaces, schools and workplaces. This joined up approach to placemaking creates certainty and therein attracts investment. Alongside a spatial plan, the national plan would include a set of national standards, thereby reducing anomalies across borough boundaries and nailing in design quality nationally. The Covid-19 lockdown has demonstrated that many homes in the UK are not fit for purpose, being too small or with insufficient storage or outdoor space. A national plan would include obligatory standards for all new homes, including for conversions and changes of use through permitted development rights.
DecentralisationWith high densities and prices in London and the Covid-19 crisis limiting commuting possibilities, a perfect planning system would promote a shift to towns and cities outside the south-east and across the country. There are many towns and cities – Birmingham, Dundee or Plymouth to name but a few - with affordable good quality housing which is being underutilised. These same settlements often have good access to parks and the countryside. What is needed is a strategy to invest in jobs and infrastructure in urban areas outside the south-east, drawing on what is often found in UK towns and cities - a good urban structure, heritage and local identity. At the town or city scale, ideas should be explored for decentralisation through a spoke and wheel model, where the more accessible outer parts of a settlement might see growth as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, reducing the need to travel into crowded centres.
Town building and house buildingA perfect planning system would promote new development in the right locations at a local level, fostering town building alongside house building. This initiative would require local plans and site allocations to promote real sustainable development and take a proactive approach to ensure new housing is connected to schools, employment, shops and amenities. Local sustainable mixed use development has been shown to be vitally important during Covid-19 and will continue to be vital to address climate change through less travel and car use. To help deliver town building and greater certainty, local plans need to be up-to-date with a five year land supply for housing; achieving this will require the current arduous plan making process to be accelerated. While a zonal planning system, as has been mooted by the Secretary of State, might bring more certainty, there is also a danger it could exacerbate the separation of land uses and therefore hinder placemaking.
Local authorities as master developers
In a world of perfect planning, local authorities would be master developers, delivering housing to help with the housing crisis. To do this in-house, they need the resources of the private sector, so they don’t need to commission consultants for every project. Some local authorities are already building new housing and neighbourhoods, but there is scope for many more to get involved in the delivery. The Secretary of State’s announcement that he is looking to give more powers to development corporations is good news. But more needs to be done to allow local planning authorities to purchase land, acquire land for comprehensive development through compulsory purchase were necessary, and commission work with the private sector where needed. Or we could go a step further, as they do in Holland and Germany, and require land value to be captured at a local level and invested in infrastructure. In this way, local authorities and partners could then commission a masterplan and lay out streets and infrastructure. They could either develop blocks or plots themselves or sell them off to a developer with land use and design guidance.
Building on the above point, much new build housing and new neighbourhoods across the country is justifiably derided for being sterile or lacking character. A new fast-track system for developers of high-quality, well-designed buildings, as suggested by the Secretary of State, might help speed up the system. But it does beg the obvious question, who decides what is a high-quality well-designed building or place? The Letwin Review of housing build out rates in 2018 suggested that delivery could be increased for large sites by introducing more ‘diversity’ into new developments, where diversity was defined as housing typologies, sizes and tenures. A perfect planning system would include diversity of building design, streets and landscape, all of which would be set out in a strong masterplan and design codes which require variety, giving greater certainty and reducing time for planning decisions.
No such thing as perfect
Of course there is no such thing as a perfect planning system, but we believe this five point plan would make for an improved planning system that delivers better urban design, sustainability and health outcomes alongside greater certainty and quicker planning decisions.
Look out for our follow up piece which takes a look at potential quick wins to speed up housing delivery and ensure the planning system can adapt quickly to the impacts of Covid-19.
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