Let’s pretend… I’ve woken up as planning minister, with an upcoming Queen’s Speech in which to set out a new and improved system.
Clarity on the government’s planning reform have been lacking since they backed away from the proposals in the Planning White Paper, albeit the proposed changes to the consenting regime and zonal planning appear to be off the agenda. I have long maintained that there is nothing inherently wrong with the planning system per se, but the problem is how it operates, how it is resourced, and its public standing. It is these areas where we must look for reform and improvement.
So, opening up my red box – what are the three things I would want to be top priority?
There is hope in certain local authorities, following the Conservative Party Spring Conference, that new policies (or algorithms…) could be in the works to take the pressure off councils and planning teams, with requirements to deliver certain housing numbers coming down. That the five-year housing land supply test could be relaxed, that there may be a new variant of the standard method to calculate housing requirements, and that the ‘duty to co-operate’ across borough boundaries may be dispensed with.
But surely the five-year housing land supply test is a useful and simple mechanism to maintain the availability of land in the event of shortfall? I would certainly caution against abandonment. If reform or revision is merited, it cannot be toothless. We should look to retain a plan-led system, and the tools that encourage reluctant authorities to maintain up-to-date plans – with penalties for failure.
If there is a political desire for leniency however, perhaps when a local plan has been adopted and found sound for a period of at least 15 years (with a 30-year strategic vision or framework), then a dispensation on the full five-year land supply grounds could be awarded. Akin to the three-year threshold for neighbourhood plans.
As long as this requires a new sound plan to be brought forward and adopted within five years, then the process would give a carrot as well as a stick – offering a reward to local authorities to embark on plan preparation with a positive and pragmatic approach. As a further incentive, and to overcome fears that the existing housing delivery test penalises councils when developers fail to deliver, we could allow a more lenient delivery ‘pass rate’ for those Councils that maintain an up-to-date plan.
If there is one policy area that is most consistently misapplied, misconceived, and misunderstood, it must be the green belt. What was invented as one component of post-war planning reforms - in an effort to balance the huge demand for new housing and development with the importance of nature and agriculture – it has now become untouchable and almost unreformable. We forget that the green belt policies came alongside policies for new towns. It was part of a strategic response to the housing crisis of the post-war years, not an insurmountable barrier to any new construction with no alternative.
We need a rethink – a return to sensible strategic planning. We must learn to look holistically and practically at land supply and need, and therefore the green belt. Key to this is joined up thinking between local authorities – and perhaps even the creation of more unitary authorities. Working together, councils can see more clearly the resources available and where there is an argument for releasing green belt as part of a strategic, holistic, and planned approach. We need to move beyond a reductionist ‘belt’ approach to a focus on delivering liveable, healthy environments.
The existing Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) was intended (or at least promoted?) to be a simple, transparent mechanism to capture contributions from development to fund the infrastructure needed to support it. It has succeeded in capturing a wider range of schemes than those covered under the previous Section 106 regime but has been a disappointment in other respects. I believe this is due to the regulations being unduly complex, and as a result much time and expense now being incurred in determining CIL liability, which then delays much needed development. Crucially, if we are to build support in our communities for much needed development, encourage involvement and a positive understanding of the need for and opportunity change presents, then we need a clear link between developers and communities to meet local needs and provide the services required.
We need is a totally transparent and simple system that will deliver tangible benefits for communities. Local residents should be able to see that developers and the local authorities are both playing their part in bringing forward the infrastructure that is needed – with a full system of accountability available in case of anyone falling short. CIL was a noble endeavour but has failed to be the trusted and open system we hoped it would be. We should accept this and create a more functional mechanism of delivering for communities across the country.
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Planning Reform, Housing Need, Green Belt, Communities