This article forms part of the LGA's Re-thinking local think piece series.
As I write, the Government’s White Paper, Planning for the Future, has just been published. There has been enough coming out of government, including the recent expansion of permitted development (July 2020), for its content not to come as a surprise, but it tears a considerable hole in the role and input of local authorities and communities.
It is not that reform is unwelcome. The many changes to the planning system in the years since the 1990 Town and Country Planning Act have only added complexity, through increasing prior approvals and reducing democratic oversight, resulting in communities sometimes feeling disregarded. Successful planning outcomes create places people want; the current planning system is often slow and cumbersome, but it is at least locally led. We all want it to be easier to create beautiful homes and places for our communities, but we do not believe that this can come from increased deregulation and shrinking accountability. Places evolve from the communities that live in them, and from planning that aims to fulfil the needs of a local area.
The most recent review of the planning system, the Raynsford Review of Planning (2018), cautioned against losing sight of the needs of communities and called for decision-making to be at the most appropriate level. Also published in 2018, Sir Oliver Letwin’s Independent Review of Build Out called for greater powers for local authorities to enable them to ensure diversification in housing to meet local need.
Although the need for diversification appears to have been recognised in principle, the mechanisms for ensuring its adoption are to be built into a design code and zonal planning. Rather than giving local authorities and communities more powers to influence local development, this principle has been set aside and the opportunities for actual engagement and local control have been substantially reduced.
Local authorities bring together key checks and balances within the planning system, providing accountability through the detailed examination of applications by officers and elected representatives. We ensure local residents have a voice by being able to comment on individual applications, attend exhibitions, and through the requirement on developers to provide evidence of dialogue with communities through Statements of Community Involvement. We make certain that land use is appropriate and conforms to local plans, which themselves have been subject to consultation. It the White Paper is adopted in law, these important opportunities to influence and examine applications will be scrapped and local plans discarded.
Community engagement is a critical part of planning and as Raynsford found, the public already feels that their concerns about development are too often overlooked. More than that, good planning needs the local, granular level of information that only residents can provide – data that modelling doesn’t show or zoning cannot take into account - how people actually live in an area, the routes and cut throughs they use, for example, or how junctions work in practice.
One of the consequences of lockdown has been the rapid implementation of virtual meetings. Cornwall Council was one of the first to set up a digital appeal hearing, proving that online engagement is an important tool. The offer we can make to residents through virtual meetings and expanding web services can increase opportunities for engagement, particularly for those living in more remote locations. We should be encouraging greater dialogue in the planning system to enable the creation of better places and give communities a greater sense of ownership. Local councillors are acutely aware of the needs of their community and want to see these reflected in development, after all, public dissatisfaction is reflected in their inboxes. Their ability to challenge and scrutinise applications and provide information to decision-makers is central to a democratic approach to planning.
Building beautiful places has to take into account how they actually work beyond whether there is a flood risk or transport impacts. Environmental consideration and access to green open spaces, social infrastructure such as shops, schools and medical centres are all fundamental to successful places. How will zoning take these into account? Deregulation without checks and balances makes it harder to ensure homes and buildings are high quality and also sustainable. Many homes being built now are not of a standard to meet the zero carbon by 2050 target, so we face a retrofitting timebomb, with the cost inevitably pushed onto homeowners. Building regulations alone are not enough to ensure design quality or to futureproof homes beyond 2050, it takes a robust planning system, climate change compliance and dialogue with developers from the outset. How will the introduction of a set design code manage a changing climate, new technologies and innovation in new materials over time?
This is what makes the current drive for speeding up planning so challenging – it is only one of many considerations and one that can be skewed towards the needs of the market. Local authorities have granted more permissions for homes than are being built, so the speed of planning is not the issue. According to the Local Government Association, there are over a million homes with planning permission waiting to be built. But as Letwin found, the market operates to maintain house prices and prioritising price can come at the expense of quality and diversity of housing. Local leadership is in the national interest – we need the powers to intervene, not to be made impotent.
Local authorities have granted more permissions for homes than are being built, so the speed of planning is not the issue.
Centralised solutions to planning inevitably fall short when measured against local need. The White Paper recognises the necessity of greater variety in housing, but will its preferred solution – to create a design code – enable flexibility in a development if approval is a done deal? The need for more affordable housing has been repeated many times, but the interpretation of affordable can vary significantly, making homeowning an impossibility for many, and disproportionately so for young people. The economic impacts of COVID-19 are likely only to make this situation worse, so empower us to create more social rented housing, shared equity, supported housing and self-build. Taking a one-size fits all, zonal model risks a London-centric approach that will not work for local authorities seeking to deliver against specific local need over time.
No-one is arguing against changing the planning system, but government is using the wrong levers. What is needed if we are to truly transform planning and retain local democracy, is a responsive national policy framework strategy with a strategic level of plan-making and local plans that sit underneath. A planning framework that brings together housing diversity and sustainability with access to green spaces, biodiversity and health and well-being, and which can integrate flood risk, carbon sequestration and the national tree strategy, for example, would be truly visionary. Can we simply rely on deregulation and reducing democratic accountability to deliver what our places need now and in the future?
On climate change and in understanding their places, communities can be way ahead of government. Widespread support for mitigating climate change and the declaration of climate emergencies have come from public pressure. Planning is not some far off concern, it has a direct impact on quality of life. Losing local leadership and democratic oversight will not sit well with local communities if they watch local needs, concerns and accountability trashed. Planning is a vital part of place making and must remain front and centre, weakening it will weaken the power and purpose of local democracy.