A credible planning system has to be serious about the environment

Having engaged with successive planning reforms during my time as chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), there is something comfortingly familiar about the white paper just published by the government. Many of the reforms I encountered in my first eight years in the job were swept away in 2012, when the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was introduced.

In his foreword to the NPPF, the minister responsible, Greg Clark, claimed that “by replacing over a thousand pages of national policy with around fifty, written simply and clearly, we are allowing people and communities back into planning”.

But simplification did not prove so easy. Detail kept creeping back. So did attacks on planning by free market think tanks, notably Policy Exchange. The funders of its lobbying and reports remain secret, but they are not hard to guess in general terms: businesses who stand to make a shed load of money from a weaker system.

Policy Exchange even got to run the planning system for a few years. Its former director, Nick Boles, was a hyperactive planning minister. Alex Morton, author of many Policy Exchange reports on housing and planning, served as David Cameron’s special adviser. But it proved easier to write about the perfect system than to achieve it. Lenin had a similar problem.

Will things work out better this time?
The prime minister now promises “radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War”. In his foreword to the white paper, the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, channels the spirit of Greg Clark: the new system will deliver all good things for everyone. And behind the reforms? Another Policy Exchange alumnus, Jack Airey, the current prime minister’s planning adviser, and an advisory panel of Policy Exchange authors and advisers.

Will things work out any better this time? Some of the intentions are good. Both Jack Airey and Robert Jenrick care about beauty in the built environment. There is a welcome emphasis on brownfield development and the reuse of existing buildings (though not all brownfield development is desirable and some buildings cannot decently be converted to housing).  And it is true that planning can be speeded up, though it is less clear that shaking it up (again) is a better way of achieving speed than funding local authorities properly.

The consultation will last for 12 weeks and there will be time for detailed responses. Here are some immediate thoughts.

1. Climate change
The white paper is entitled Planning for the future and it is encouraging to see references to building new homes “fit for a zero carbon future”. There is little detail and the timetables seem wildly unambitious, but at least the commitment is there. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has been a laggard department when it comes to climate action. The white paper also says we need “to reduce our reliance on carbon-intensive modes of transport”. That’s good too, but how can this be achieved while also sweeping away red tape?

2. Newt-counting
In his ill-judged ‘build, build, build’ speech at the end of June, the prime minister said: “time is money and the newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and the prosperity of this country”. He promised (or threatened) “a Project Speed to scythe through red tape and get things done”. Given the importance of EU directives and environmental assessment to nature protection in the UK, this caused alarm.

The white paper says that, outside the EU, we must “take the opportunity to strengthen protections that make the biggest difference to species, habitats and ecosystems of national importance, and that matter the most to local communities”. It is not clear quite what this would mean in practice, but “a separate and more detailed consultation” is promised for the autumn. It should certainly mean better data on nature, so we know what’s at stake.

3. The purpose of planning
Planning is a democratic process that mediates between different interests – local and national; social, economic and environmental; current and future generations – in the public interest. The questions with which planning grapples are complicated and deeply political. Sometimes planning outcomes will be flawed (welcome to the human condition) and they will often disappoint particular interests. But the complex issues with which planning deals will not be made simple by simplifying the system.

The white paper proposes a system of zonal planning, by which local plans will identify land under three categories: “Growth areas suitable for substantial development, and where outline approval for development would be automatically secured for forms and types of development specified in the Plan; Renewal areas suitable for some development, such as gentle densification; and Protected areas where – as the name suggests – development is restricted.”

The planning system can’t just been seen as blocking market forces
This sounds neat. When I wrote How to build houses and save the countryside (“essential reading, now more than ever”), I considered advocating zonal planning but rejected the idea partly because such a big upheaval in the planning system would slow development for some years, but more because I did not believe that there was the will in government – the belief in the art of planning – to devise a credible system.

I am still not sure. Ministers’ speeches, and the white paper, blame planning and red tape for all sorts of things that have other, more important causes, not least the state’s failure to build enough new homes.

Moving from our established system to a zonal system will be a hard slog. It will require the manufacture of lots of new red tape (aka rules and guidance), for more on this see this interesting blog by Andrew Lainton. And, to be credible, it will need to have behind it a government that actually believes in planning as “an instrument of which we can be justly proud”, not one which sees it largely as getting in the way of market forces.

Richard Benwell of Wildlife and Countryside Link has characterised the three proposed zones as:

– ‘Growth area’: build, build, build
– ‘Renewal area’: mostly build, build, build
– ‘Protected area’: apply to build, build, build in exactly the same way that applies now

If the government wants to carry credibility for its proposals, it needs to engage much more seriously with environmentalists, not just with developers and party donors.

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