The need to address our national housing crisis and its impact on society, affordability and quality was top of the agenda before the COVID-19 crisis. We have continually failed, for the last 30 years, to deliver the number of homes we need and now, given housing delivery generally tracks UK GDP, the need for solutions is greater than ever. The prime minister’s reference to ‘society’ in recent addresses, reflects a shift in attitudes during this crisis. If society has been galvanised to address the underlying housing crisis, what is the role for planning? In contrast to the 2008-12 recession, house price and wage inflation have been more static in recent years. This may aid our economic recovery, but we can still foresee a drop in the number of dwellings delivered, worsening our housing crisis. New solutions are critical if we are to provide the homes needed.
The Planning Act effectively nationalised the right to develop land in the public interest. Planning is now seen as part of the problem not the solution. This needs to change. As Grosvenor has rightly advocated, planning needs to step up and earn the public’s trust. Just as we have come to appreciate the value of the NHS and all those who work in it, so we need to understand what planning contributes to society. To earn this trust, we recommend that the Government intervenes through the imminent Planning White Paper by:
1. Conducting a national conversation to help educate people in what planning can achieve and to help influence the society they want to create.
2. Re-evaluating the importance of health and wellbeing in the way we plan for development.
3. Reflecting these community priorities in a strategic National Plan, empowering councils to reflect this in their Local Plans, and encourage communities to create their own Neighbourhood Plans.
4. Reforming the CIL regime to deliver transparency in how we pay for it.
You can’t clap with one hand: We all contribute to society
We need a more transparent planning system – returning the focus to delivering key, established, and agreed national objectives which communities trust, engage with and understand.
This can only be achieved through a national conversation about the society we want to live in, and recognition of the part development must play - something we called for in our 2014 Wolfson Economics Prize submission3, and still believe is crucial. We need to help people to realise that positive engagement in the process can address many of the problems faced by society and the environment today.
We also need to reset the process to be more positive. Council decision-making is currently geared to retaining control and minimising impacts of development: proving no demonstrable harm as opposed to positive benefits. We must instead be capturing and celebrating the positive benefits of development and ensuring we deliver on the promise.
By having an open conversation, multiple times, we can keep the sense of civic collaboration and collective spirit, created by COVID-19, to find a solution. Led by councillors, this engagement can also be done in a way which ensures they are fully representing their communities and asking the right questions. As public health authorities, as well as planning authorities, there is political drive to ensure the funding and skills are in place to maximise the benefits, but councils need to get involved early and proactively.
Improve understanding and engagement in planning and what it can deliver for society through a national conversation. Create a more transparent planning system that is better understood by the communities it serves and encourages active, positive engagement.
A return to environmental determinism?
Planning has always been aimed at improving the living conditions of the poor and disadvantaged. COVID-19 is bringing this into sharp focus again today, with evidence that those with the highest mortality rates and lowest access to greenspace are those in disadvantaged and minority aspects of society. Planning was invented to tackle these inequalities and needs a reboot.
The opportunity exists for health objectives to be addressed through the planning of our neighbourhoods. We should move from assessing urban green space via space standards, to understanding it’s real value - functionality, quality and health role, using tools such as Greenkeeper.
We need to understand the science of health in planning our communities and collaborate with health professionals earlier and effectively to address causes and influencers, rather than treat results.
The extension and development of the Healthy New Towns initiative is essential. Co-creation through collaborative design will ensure common objectives can be maximised, and benefits driven that have far greater reach, such as:
- Parks and streets become jewels - safe spaces that inspire, create healthier lifestyles and better wellbeing for all generations.
- Air quality is enhanced through reduced travel and greener transport.
- Community cohesion is developed through involvement and governance, to create a greater sense of belonging and happiness.
- Grow your own and local produce focus drives emphasis on healthier living.
- Agile working allows for more time for family, friends, exercise and leisure activities.
- Better-designed homes deliver better living conditions and reduce stress.
- Ecological net gain creates a diverse ecosystem that can offer enjoyment, education, and custodianship.
- Diversity of tenure and home provision drives healthy sustainable communities.
- Require the genuine co-creation of places, involving health experts, communities, developers/housebuilders and councils in the design process, focussing upon the quality of place – both the public realm and the form / physical appearance of new development.
- Encourage a reset of the ‘mitigation’ mindset and focus on realising the benefits development brings and funding opportunities it could open up.
Strategic planning on a national level to achieve the society we want
Governments have successively sought to influence the geography of economic activity, i.e. through the relocation of the DVLA and more latterly the BBC. But the housing crisis manifests itself in different ways across the country. Of the 300,000 homes needed, almost half are required in London and the South East. Outside the areas of high demand, we still have a challenging market of supply but also, as a result, a lack of investment in broader benefits, like social and transport infrastructure.
The Government has already committed politically to re-balancing the country following the 2019 General Election. Planning lies at the heart of this, but the Government needs to accept how strategic planning can deliver these benefits. As called for by the UK2070 Commission, we need to broaden the geography of demand for housing and the benefits that come with it, via a debate and national plan for change. UK2070 sets out the reasons for this approach, but the COVID-19 crisis offers the perfect opportunity for the Government to listen and act quickly, to provide certainty and stimulate confidence.
From a national conversation can emerge a national plan, strong leadership, and a clear role for planning and community buy-in Using the results of the re-evaluation of health priorities described above, objectives for how healthy places can be created at the local level, taking account of local socio-economic characteristics and trends, can be identified and included within the succinct Local Plan, with bespoke solutions created.
Neighbourhood plans should be encouraged to help communities define how and where to deliver housing. The process needs reforming as momentum is being lost and many neighbourhood plans abandoned or delayed due to the complexity for their delivery.
Improve strategic planning at a national level, reflected in Local and Neighbourhood Plans
A. Use the results of the national conversation to identify key priorities and objectives in a National Plan
B. Change the roles of councils to become more directly involved in creating and managing changes in their areas, to:
i. deliver agreed National Plan objectives through more focussed Local Plans
ii. become actively involved in development process to support supply
iii. co-create places that deliver change or new homes
iv. play a primary role in seeding and nurturing the new community
C. Support communities to bring forward simplified Neighbourhood Plans.
It is all about money: transparency on how we pay for it
Since the origins of the modern planning system, we have failed to effectively resolve how to mitigate the impacts of development or fund societal improvements and needs. This has been exasperated by lack of local authority funding to meet aspirations and needs of communities. Instead, we have moved away from mitigation of impact to indirect taxation, predominantly through CIL where there is a lack of transparency in how the receipts are spent. This breaks the important link between development and the existing community, engenders distrust in the process and is a missed opportunity for development to be recognised as the enabler of positive change.
If we are going to build more, development must continue to pay its fair share and be seen to do so, re-establishing the link between development and public benefit.
The CIL/s106 regime must be simplified, to improve transparency and reduce bureaucracy, and maintain the link between impact and mitigation, development and delivery. The introduction of a system to capture the land value uplift arising from development simply represents another tax. The government needs to be clear which route they wish to pursue and not burden planning.
Transform the current CIL regime to become less bureaucratic; and a more transparent and collectively owned process aligned to the key national and local planning objectives.
Out of adversity comes opportunity. We have a once in a generation opportunity to reboot how we plan for our communities. COVID-19 has brought into sharp relief many of the issues that we were facing as a society before. Don’t hold back on our collective ambition. Let us take that opportunity: big and better planning for a better society.
This article was original written by Iain Painting and Robin Shepherd for Localis, as part of their essay collection 'Building for renewal: kickstarting the C19 housing recovery' - see the full report here.
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