Zones of interest – the Planning White Paper and London

[Published by Centre for London, 29 October 2020]

The government’s ‘Planning for the future White Paper, on which public consultation closes this week, is a bold statement of intent at a time when many of us are confused about planning for the Christmas holidays. It sets out a radical agenda for reforming town planning — to speed the process up, to get more and better homes built, to make community involvement more meaningful. But how will it work in London?

Read our response to the consultation

The proposals amount to a rather British hybrid (aka ‘fudge’) between zoning-based systems where rules are set up front for what can be built where, and the more discretionary system we have now, where decisions are taken on a case-by case basis, albeit in the light of local and national policy. It proposes that the whole country will be divided into areas for growth, areas for renewal and areas for protection, with automatic planning permission for new developments that fall within the rules for growth areas, and a greater role for discretion in the other categories.

The government will set housing targets for each council, will issue a national ‘design code’ allowing for local variation, and will introduce a standardised levy on the value of new development, to pay for affordable housing and other local infrastructure. Councils will allocate land to the different categories, develop local design codes and zoning rules (eg, on mix of uses), consult local people on these, collect and spend the new infrastructure levy, and take any decisions still required.

There’s a lot of potential in these proposals. They won’t solve London’s housing problem on their own, but they could help. Greater planning certainty could diversify the market and speed up building, and there’s a huge problem of public trust that earlier engagement could help with.

But the White Paper is deafeningly silent on how all this applies to London, and implies too many powers being drawn into the centre and not enough being left to local democracy. Given the government’s challenge to the Mayor’s draft London Plan, and the strings attached to bailouts of Transport for London, you could be forgiven for seeing this as another area where devolution is being rolled back by ministers that see city mayors as an irritant at best. Government officials insist this is not the case. In fact, they say, London’s two tier planning system, housing targets and network of opportunity areas are the type of approach being pushed more widely.

But the detail does need fleshing out, as Centre for London’s response to the consultation argues. If London is really to accommodate the number of new homes that the government’s new calculations suggest (more than 90,000 each year), this will need more radical approaches to working across South-East England and/or a long-overdue review of the green belt.

And the roles of the London Plan, borough plans and associated design codes will need to be very clear if ‘upstream’ community engagement is to have strong enough teeth for local people to feel that they can shape growth and urban change where they live, without debating every building. This will also have to mean strengthening controls on ‘permitted development’ conversions of commercial buildings, which are creating some horrid and pokey flats around the capital (though the government has made the positive commitment that national space standards will now be applied to such developments).

The new proposed ‘infrastructure levy’ for affordable housing and other costs will not generate enough funding on its own to build all the affordable homes London needs. But, along with zoning, it should help to bring more builders into the market by creating more clarity up front, and reducing the haggling and costs involved in securing permission.

If the changes are implemented, it will redefine the role of borough planning officers. More zoning-based systems will require more up-front work on masterplans and public consultations and maybe less management of individual planning applications. Given the cuts that planning departments have seen in recent years and the shortage of skills in these areas they are already facing, this will have to mean more money, at least for a transitional period.

But the big question is whether the reforms will be followed through. The proposed centralised approach to setting housing targets and the higher targets that this would generate for the South East has scandalised many home counties MPs (though many seem to miss the fact that the numbers generated by the ‘mutant algorithm’ will be modified to reflect constraints on capacity). And picking apart and restitching the complexities of planning, without generating uncertainty for developers and councils as the UK enters recession, will be a big challenge. But 1947, when the Town and Country Planning Act became law and put in place the planning system we have today, was a testing time too.

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