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UK planning reforms receive mixed response as government promises to ‘build back better’

Joanne HarrisWednesday 2 September 2020

In early August, the British Government published a white paper, ‘Planning for the Future’, which outlines the most dramatic reforms to the United Kingdom’s planning system in decades. It’s a response to the concern expressed by many in the planning and construction industries that the UK is suffering from a shortage of good-quality housing, in particular, good-quality affordable housing.

If passed into law the proposals would deregulate the current planning regime, creating a rules-based system with a greater focus on sustainability.

But the plans have not been met with universal applause. In its response to the plans, the Royal Institute of British Architects’ President, Alan Jones, said ‘There’s every chance they could also lead to the creation of the next generation of slum housing. The housing crisis isn’t just about numbers, and deregulation won’t solve it.’

The planning system has the effect of adding considerable value to real estate in every single regulated economy in the world, in the UK particularly

Iain Gilbey
Partner, Pinsent Masons

In announcing the reforms, the UK Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick argued that the government will ‘cut red tape, but not standards, placing a higher regard on quality, design and the environment than ever before.’ Jenrick dismisses the concerns about the creation of low quality homes as ‘nonsense’.

The most radical area of change is to ‘local plans’. Under current regulations, these are prepared by a local planning authority such as a council, then submitted to the government. An inspector is appointed to carry out an independent examination and talk to local people, before making a report.

The new proposals will standardise and digitalise local plans. All areas of land will fall into one of three categories: growth areas, suitable for substantial development; renewal areas for development; and protected areas. Growth areas would automatically be granted outline planning permission for development in principle, while the other two categories would require more consultation.

‘They want to strip away the layers of detail that local plans include to make them far less detailed, far less complex and for them to come forward far more quickly and in a more graphical format,’ explains Iain Gilbey, a planning partner at Pinsent Masons.

Duncan Field, a partner at London boutique Town Legal, says the proposals would introduce a ‘very British form of zoning’.

‘It’s building in something that we’re all familiar with but strengthening the outcome of land being allocated in the local plan,’ Field adds. ‘The misconception around this is that I don’t think government is intending local authorities to designate large swathes of land for one thing or another. It’s more likely that you’ll have a patchwork of designation.’

Gilbey points out that different local authorities will likely have different approaches to zone designations. A more centralised approach to the numbers of new houses required could well lead to some tension at local level.

The government’s white paper also introduces the concept of a national model design code to set out parameters for development in different locations, which calls back to the concept of ‘pattern books’ commonly employed in the past.

Meanwhile the current system of community infrastructure levies and agreements designed to ensure social infrastructure is put in place during a new development will be replaced by an infrastructure levy charged on the final value of a development. Planning lawyers say it remains unclear whether this levy will actually help to secure affordable housing.

Construction is a key driver in the UK’s recovery from the recession caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only does new construction generate jobs, developing land will dramatically increase its value.

‘The planning system has the effect of adding considerable value to real estate in every single regulated economy in the world, in the UK particularly. Politicians can see that there’s money to be made for the public purse,’ Gilbey says.

However, in the current climate, government also needs to ensure the reforms deliver the right type of housing and avoid cramped, homogeneous blocks.

Neelim Sultan, who is Diversity and Inclusion Officer for the IBA Poverty and Social Development Committee and a barrister at 1 MCB Chambers, notes the pandemic has made the contrast between those living in cities and those elsewhere stark.

‘If you’re already in good accommodation that makes a huge different to how efficiently you’re able to adapt to home working. The corollary of that is that if you’re not living in accommodation that’s appropriate that shows up in an even more glaring divide,’ Sultan says.

‘Access to green space and access to outside spaces needs to be factored in much more into the thinking around planning. Profits can’t be the only imperative,’ adds Sultan. ‘It would be a real missed opportunity if some of that lived experience didn’t filter through into the thinking around planning.’

Sultan argues that government has got to be at the table and be more proactive when it comes to discussing planning deregulation so the biggest voices aren’t always those who want to build.

Field says discretionary control over proposed projects, even those in ‘growth’ areas, will provide mitigation against cramped, inappropriate housing. ‘This still gives scope for local authorities to control the design and other issues that come forward,’ he adds.

‘Harking back to the pattern book idea has caused some commentators to say we don’t want to roll out identikit houses. I think that’s emotive language. It does require appropriate public engagement in the planning process so these passionate views can be expressed,’ believes Gilbey.

The reforms are still only in the consultation phase, and are likely to be amended further before they become law. There also remains one key stumbling block to making the changes happen – resourcing.

‘There’s a real capacity and skills issue in local authorities and so the planning reform agenda needs to go hand in hand with a recognition that it’s going to require local authorities to have better resources available to them,’ says Gilbey.

‘There’s a lot of legislation and regulation to be put in place, there’s a transition to achieve without slowing anything down while the transition takes place, and there’s a resourcing and skills issue to be addressed to make sure that once it’s in place the new system operates effectively,’ concludes Field.