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Analysing the government’s proposed planning reforms

Two stalwarts of Hastings Urban Design Group, Ken Davis and Chris Lewcock, offer their thoughts on the government’s proposed reform of the planning system, both writing in a personal capacity.

Ken Davis: Appeal to hope

I now must make an appeal to hope, we must now move forward and we must now move to better.

And so, what many of us have known for a long time now, is out of the bag. The government is telling us that the planning system we have is rubbish. No point in beating about the bush, no point in dressing up the old model anymore with tweeks and whistles, the system needs radical change. This, at least, is what the consultation white paper is telling us.

Moreover, what the government is now telling us is that we no longer need to go on blaming the local politicians or the local planning officers, for they have been struggling to work with an inefficient and overly bureaucratic system. It is the system, first put in place over a hundred years ago now, which has failed all of us.

In place of a ‘use class’ based system (factories here, housing there, shops somewhere else, etc, which we have long known does not work), we are to have only three zones and no mention of use. Hurrah!

Zone 1 will be for growth, zone 2 for renewal, and zone 3 for protection. Simple. And the limits of these zones will have to be agreed with local people, just like now then; sort of? Of course, growth areas will not be near anyone, so there will no be cause for any objection; protection areas will be pretty much those that are protected at the moment, so no plastic windows or satellite dishes just like now. The really great thing is that in renewal areas it will be possible to do whatever you want; a terrific idea!

Sustainability

Another good thing is that all buildings will have to be sustainable, which is easy enough to assess, so specific guidance will be needed. It will be great to see how such detail can be fitted into the lower level of information and bureaucracy that the new legislation proposes.

There is also to be an emphasis on beauty, thus avoiding all the prejudice, preconceptions and bias there is in decision-making at the moment. I guess we will have a local beauty expert who might like classical styles, or vernacular, or contemporary, so it will be easy to know in advance which style to design to.

Photo: Ken Davis

Thank goodness that the sort of creativity and personal expression shown above will no longer be allowed, or is this beautiful? Solid construction so durable, windmill and solar panel for carbon reduction, so sustainable. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and is thus about taste. Taste is not reliable but quality is, yet quality is about specific performance rather than an opinion.

This is why we need hope……that the white paper is headed for the bin and a rethink which will work. It is only a consultation so I hope and pray for light!

 

Chris Lewcock: Whitehall land grab?

There’s an awful lot of repetitive general (and often justified) criticism of the existing “system” and a lot more generalised arm-waving about what should be done. There are frequent references to and lots of pretty photos of good practice in many local Councils. However, instead of building on good practice and penalising bad, the proposals amount to a massive Whitehall land grab.

Strategic issues, such as housing numbers, will be set nationally. New Local Plans will set out Growth, Renewal and Protected areas based on national standard templates. Councils will be allowed (!) to identify development sites based on nationally set criteria and create “local” design codes following national models.  All aspects of plan preparation, data collection, consultation and presentation will be done digitally to nationally set formats.  This includes all aspects of the planning application process.

In all cases the document is proposing default powers for Whitehall to intervene where a local authority is dragging its feet (which if targeted might not be a bad thing!). Two points may present opportunities. There is a lot of stress on digitising everything that moves. Hastings’ planning records, paper and digital, are appallingly bad – years of Councillor indifference and easy cuts.

Perhaps HBC could volunteer to be a test case for making all their planning records and processes digitally accessible? (maybe if/when they get cobbled fully into a unitary authority?)

The document also pushes hard for more neighbourhood engagement in creating the design codes and this may present genuine opportunities for a flourishing local engagement in planning? Rother has a well-established neighbourhood planning base to build on. Hastings is only just getting started.

There’s a lot of talk about simplifying processes and removing “unnecessary” regulations etc but very little detail on how that will actually be achieved. Planning law is currently a set of unnecessarily complicated layers which require forensic legal skills to navigate. Even experienced officers get it wrong.

Sadly the proposals in the document will increase this complexity. For example, it proposes that planning applications would not be needed for “form-based” (meaning?) development proposals in some residential areas in order to allow “gentle intensification”. This could have to be based on a Local Development Order and would probably still need an application for Prior Approval (a theoretically simpler process but still an application) from the local planning authority. Once the parliamentary draftspeople get their hands on cross-referencing  this sort of thing with all the proceeding Regs…!

More housing?

The document has been dressed up by the Government as helping get more housing. It won’t do that in Hastings. A housing number as our contribution to an overall 300,000 per annum will now be dictated nationally. We already have lots of sites which are not being built, including land owned by the Borough Council, the County Council and the Ministry of Defence.

The replacement of Section 106 obligations on planning applications with an overall Infrastructure Levy (which Hastings doesn’t use at the moment) based on nationally set rates will not change things since developers will still be able to argue that a Levy makes development unviable.

Furthermore, and this could be a good thing, the proposed new Protected Areas and tougher enforcement of flood zones may give a sounder and genuine basis for Hastings to argue that it simply hasn’t got enough land on which to build (Rother may have more difficulties).  Getting more housing is down to a lot of other things like modernising the building industry!

There’s also quite a bit of balderdash about a “fast track for beauty,” including a new design quango and local authorities being required to re-label one of their Chief Officers and (of course) new Whitehall written design codes to help spread beauty about.

How workable much of it is will depend on the detail, and a lot of the detail is missing. There are some other practical concerns.

  • As noted above actually making the necessary law changes is likely to add to complexity.
  • There is a lot of stress on digitisation and the use of national databases and software. Little if any of this kit has been tested at scale. The document also promotes “PropTech” as needing and having access to the resultant data. Sounds good to use the data but this may raise issues about ownership and control – could be open source as per OS mapping, not just hijacked by “PropTech” whoever they are – who are they?
  • How will the transition from the existing to the new Local Plans be managed? E.g. should Hastings continue with its current local plan review?
  • Most fundamentally the new system will require the commitment of existing councils and their staff. Some of them, as the document acknowledges, are already successful – will they be undermined by the new system? Some are currently less successful, often due to lack of resources – are they going to be a reliable base for building anew?
  • Does MHCLG [Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government] have enough bodies and skills to provide default cover if it needs/wishes to intervene?

 

See also the Liberal Democrats’ assessment: Is Boris Johnson planning for his mates?

 

Posted 21:21 Friday, Aug 28, 2020 In: Local Government

2 Comments

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  1. ken davis

    In reply to HG and other matters. The planning system is indeed in a dire state, of that there is no doubt and HG makes a very good point about the separation of essential technical needs dealt with largely under the Building Regulations (by which time planning approval will already have been granted) and the policy orientated approach of planning. But what her response really points up is not just the dis-jointed nature of our buildings approval systems but the fact that the whole approval process (including flooding, health suitability etc) does not understand the design process which is both developmental (going from the general to the specific) but also cyclical i.e it loops back on itself . Our present systems artificially interrupt rather than work with that process. A better built environment requires acceptance and understanding of that need .

    Comment by ken davis — Sunday, Sep 6, 2020 @ 11:48

  2. Mrs heather Grief

    The planning laws currently have some gaping holes. There is nothing about cliffs / steep slopes, as in how close to the top / bottom can you build? – see St. Margaret’s and Caves Rds respectively.
    Also, who thought it was a good idea to allow kitchens and bathrooms not to have a window? An openable one is absolutely essential for both these rooms, given the level of steam / condensation / smell.
    I would force all new homes to have full disabled access on the ground floor, and all houses to have a downstairs loo. I would also insist on built-in stair gates to protect small children from falling down the stairs – an enterprising infant can usually dislodge all those silly temporary gates that are on the market.
    Covid has shown just how essential some outdoor space is for every home, flats included – balcony or sun terrace – would help with low vitamin D levels too, and every block of flats with some garden area should have to have seating, washing line and small allotment plots according to demand from the occupants.
    Finally, everyone in town should be asked what their housing need is. A comparison should be made with what the town actually has, and a list made of how many of each type is needed, with builders made to build what is needed, instead of big houses, which give them the biggest profit margin. I noticed on an HBC Development Plan email that they have to allow people to say if they’d like to have a plot of land on which to self-build / get a builder to do a home for them (central govt rule) but they charge £40 with no promise that such a plot will be provided.

    Comment by Mrs heather Grief — Thursday, Sep 3, 2020 @ 15:59

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