Nowhere near enough homes in the right places – just one of the failings of the current planning system according to the Prime Minister in his foreword to the new White Paper: Planning for the Future released on 6 August.
The so-called radical reforms which the White Paper proposes will, we are told, provide the means to tear down the current planning system and to start again. Moreover, their implementation will provide a new planning system for England which above all “gives the people of this country the homes we need in the places we want to live at prices we can afford, so that all of us are free to live where we can connect our talents with opportunity”. But, on closer examination, are the White Paper’s proposals a panacea or just pie in the sky when it comes to securing much needed housing delivery?
The Proposed Reforms
The White Paper’s first proposal is the simplification of Local Plans so that land is allocated to one of three categories – Growth areas suitable for substantial development (including, for example, new settlements and urban extension sites), Renewal areas suitable for development (intended to cover existing built areas where small scale development is appropriate such as the “gentle densification and infill of residential areas”) and areas that are Protected (including Green Belt, AONBs, Conservation Areas and Local Wildlife Sites).
Linked to this, maximisation of the development potential of brownfield land and protection of the Green Belt are emphasised by the White Paper – both existing policies which look set to remain. However, absent meaningful Green Belt review on any level or targeted and effective proposals to overcome the costly hurdle of remediating brownfield sites in order that they can be brought forward for development, one can’t help but wonder how impactful a simplified Local Plan process will be in meeting housing targets and facilitating housing delivery.
The Neighbourhood Plan is here to stay as a means of securing community input as part of a reformed planning system – the White Paper makes this clear.
The encouragement of communities to think proactively about how they would like their areas to develop is supported by most. However, the concern is and will continue to be whether those who participate in the neighbourhood planning process are of a “protect” rather than a “growth” and “renewal” mindset. Further, the role of the Neighbourhood Plan and its status alongside the new Local Plan system which the White Paper advocates is unclear – it’s said that consideration will need to be given to the content of Neighbourhood Plans and whether they should become more “focused” (whatever that means) to reflect the proposals for Local Plans.
The extension and adaptation of the Neighbourhood Plan concept so that very small areas, such as individual streets, can set their own rules for the form of development which they are content to see delivered is also trailed in the White Paper. If taken forward, how would these “rules” sit alongside the standardised rules-based system which new Local Plans are to be built on, and when a conflict between the two inevitably arises, how is that conflict to be resolved so as not to undermine the delivery of development and, in particular, housing?
Improving infrastructure delivery, including affordable housing, through reforming the system of developer contributions is another key part of the White Paper. The removal of section 106 planning obligations and the Community Infrastructure Levy, and their replacement with a consolidated and expanded “Infrastructure Levy” – a nationally set, value-based flat rate charge – is proposed. In doing so, the government says it is committed to ensuring that affordable housing provision is kept at current levels, and that it is delivered on site to ensure that new development continues to support mixed communities.
Where the value of development is below the minimum threshold which the new Infrastructure Levy will specify, the White Paper confirms that no levy will be charged, thereby removing the viability risk. However, how is development viability to be meaningfully considered if not on a site by site basis? Further, for those areas with a large number of sites considered to be “low viability” due to the particular challenges involved in their development, absent an ability to charge the Infrastructure Levy, how will they secure and fund local infrastructure and ensure affordable housing provision for those communities where there is a clear and pressing need? These questions are not answered by the White Paper.
The White Paper’s proposed reforms may at first blush appear big and bold but are they capable of delivering radical reform and with it a much improved planning system?There is a real danger that should the detail of the government’s proposals not be thought out carefully, we may look back in years to come and think that we could and should have done better.