Market Insight

Planning White paper: Delivering on a radical promise, or more political rhetoric?

August 4, 2020

Following on from the Government’s Planning for the Future policy paper published in March, the long-awaited Planning White Paper is expected to be published imminently.

This week (1 August), Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, has provided further insight into what we can expect.

The aim of the Planning White Paper is to cut red tape in the planning system to accelerate the approval process for developers, whilst placing more focus on well-designed places.

However, will it, like the recent planning policy announcements on extended permitted development rights, leave developers nonplussed? 

In a letter to the Times in June, RTPI chief executive Victoria Hills confirmed that the planning system “has been a political football for decades”, so can we expect tangible reform of our post-war planning system? 

Here’s our summary on what we might expect from the paper when it is published: 

Zonal planning system 

For some time now, Government advisers have explored the possibility of moving away from a discretionary plan-led system to a radical US-style zonal planning system. 

To understand the differences between the two systems, check this useful comparison from the RTPI. 

The idea for a zonal planning system was put forward in June 2020 by the Policy Exchange thinktank and it is worth noting that the report’s co-author, Jack Airey, has since been appointed as the Housing and Planning Special Advisor to Boris Johnson.

If adopted, such a system would mean that, rather than planning applications being decided based on local plans, zonal systems would allocate specific areas for different types of development, effectively deciding what type and quantity of development can be delivered where.

The aim? To reduce planning red tape and deliver more housing whilst providing more certainty around where specific buildings can be developed.

On 1 August, Robert Jenrick provided more detail on what will come forward, with land being designated in one of three categories:

  • For growth – new homes hospitals, schools, shops and offices will be allowed automatically
  • For renewal – This will enable much quicker development with a ‘permission in principle’ approach to balance speed whilst ensuring appropriate checks are carried out
  • For protection – Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and rich heritage

There are also rumours that zonal planning could also make an appearance in Enterprise Zones, Local Development Orders and possibly areas managed by Development Corporations à la 1990s, as well as the potential for councils to the introduce zoning into other specific geographically-limited growth areas.

These proposals could provide more certainty to developers / landowners looking to develop within the ‘growth’ and ‘renewal’ zones. 

However, this would take away some of the flexibility that the current system allows. For example, if not enough development is taking place on allocated sites or circumstances change, then unallocated sites can be considered. Under the above zoning system, these unallocated areas would be protected with no wriggle-room to change course.

Fast-track ‘design code’ system 

The Government is likely to want to incorporate aspects of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, to effectively fast track well-designed buildings by allowing local authorities to adopt local ‘design codes’. Robert Jenrick has confirmed an element of deign codes will be introduced.

As part of this, applications that comply with the detail of the code will enjoy a faster route through the planning system. 

However, the concept of ‘detail’ will be an important one here – the process will need to be significantly easier than that of a full planning application, for it to deliver the desired impact. 

And whilst such a system looks positive on paper, the unintended consequences for building design could be significant. There is a very real risk that building design and innovation could become stifled by what is effectively a dictatorial design ‘code of conduct’. 

Revised housing need formula 

We can also expect an announcement to review the formula used to calculate housing need which was based on household projections from the ONS which have since been updated. 

This is likely to be a move to ‘correct’ the formula using the latest ONS household projections which will reduce overall housing need to lower than what the Government had intended to produce. 

It constitutes more of a political move than a high impact change. Given Boris Johnson’s ‘Build, Build, Build’ initiative, the formula could be revised to produce a higher housing need figure. 

Planning fee reform 

In a move hoped to incentivise local planning teams, we may also see reform to planning fees whereby if a local authority fails to determine planning applications within a set timeframe, fees will be repaid to the applicant or reduced by the authority. We could also see the potential for refunds of planning fees for those appeals which are won by applicants. 

This is less an ‘incentive’ more another means of penalising local planning teams at a time when purse strings are as tight as they have ever been. 

Whilst we hope that the Planning White Paper will deliver positive planning reform, as ever the devil will be in the detail. 

What is needed most, however, is more investment at a local authority level to deal with the lack of planning team resource. 

Local authorities have had their budget slashed in recent years, and planning has been cut more than most. Without more investment at a local authority level, the system will never work as quickly as demand needs. 

If you would like more information on any of the issues discussed in this article, don’t hesitate to contact our planning team.