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The government should rethink the Planning Bill

This post is by Dame Fiona Reynolds, master of Emmanuel College, former director-general of the National Trust, vice president of CPRE, the Countryside Charity, and trustee of Green Alliance. She writes here in a personal capacity.

Last summer the government consulted on what it described as radical reform of the land use planning system.  In intemperate language, it blamed planning for much that is wrong in our society: for failing to deliver new housing (even though one million houses with planning permission are not being built); for failing to allow businesses to grow; for failing to deliver infrastructure; and for failing to involve people in decisions. It promised “a whole new planning system for England”.

Though criticised from right and left, by environmentalists and even some developers, the Queen’s Speech last week announced a Planning Bill to implement these changes.  Though little has changed as a result of the consultation it is clear that, far from being a “whole new system”, the Planning Bill simply takes a scythe to what already exists, with one overriding aim: speed. 

Yet, as we emerge from the pandemic, it’s not speed that we want, but the right long term decisions for our country. 

Speed is the wrong focus
Our current planning system, built substantially on the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, has a different goal.  Its aim is to ensure the right development happens in the right place, with public consent, and is co-ordinated with and helps deliver the government’s other strategic objectives in a joined up, effective way.  That’s precisely what is needed now, when we must plan for a sustainable recovery from the Covid pandemic, and address the triple crises of climate change, nature decline and public health.

Speed is of no benefit if it leads to the wrong, short term decisions, and if we build in the wrong places, locking ourselves into energy intensive, unsustainable patterns of living.  And upending established processes and creating a climate of controversy around planning may in itself end up slowing things down.  Now, by contrast, is the time to harness the potential of the planning system, and people’s trust in it, to align disconnected government policies and help us all live good, sustainable lives. 

Some of the proposals are welcome
Of course, the planning system is not perfect, and there are some issues where consensus for improvement should be possible.  There is widespread agreement that Local Plans are critical documents, should provide comprehensive coverage of England and should carry significant weight, though that should not rule out people’s right to engage in the detail of proposed developments once the plan is agreed in principle.  

The process of involving community and other stakeholders should certainly be improved; and the better collection and management of data, along with digitisation, will be invaluable. 

The government has also said it wants the planning system to provide people with more access to green space, to protect and improve nature and the historic environment, and to promote beauty and sustainability.  All these are admirable and important goals.

But the good ideas are lost in the insensitivity of its big ambition: speed.  And the government’s repeated assertions that planning has failed ignores the many successes of the post war planning system and risks alienation from those who have a stake in it.

Because it is not the planning system that has held back necessary new development (including housing) but the development model.  Speeding more housing consents through the process, often against legitimate local concerns, doesn’t mean the right houses will get built to meet people’s needs and move us towards sustainability. For the future, we need a stewardship approach, where developers and partners collaborate to create good places to live for the long term, not just to build houses.

Three issues are particularly contentious

1. Zoning
The bill proposes zoning land into Growth, Renewal (though we hear this category is being pondered) and Protected categories.  They’ll do what they say: either enable development or stop it.  This is all much too crude.  Zoning has never had traction or support within England’s complex landscape, not least because, with our small land area and large population, we need a more nuanced, subtle approach.  The circumstances in Japan and the USA (which appear to have inspired these proposals) are very different. 

The reality is that a one size fits all approach simply won’t work.  Each place is different and needs tailored solutions. Alongside growth there are places needing protection, historic buildings that should be woven into the future fabric, and spaces which need to be created for nature and fresh air. And nowhere should be preserved in aspic, but subject to the careful management of change.    

But growth is where the energy is and, if these proposals go ahead, large areas of land will effectively be released for development, with little control or chance to shape its detail, or to achieve important qualitative outcomes. And we hear far too little, overall, about the ambition of renewal, including the reuse or remodelling of the existing urban fabric to achieve good places to live.

2. Top down housing targets vs good places to live
The government responded to outrage over its earlier plans to impose housing targets on local authorities, using an algorithm to calculate the number each should provide for.  It was quickly spotted that this would impose disproportionate development on rural counties. Now there’s a welcome greater focus on cities, but the top down approach remains, as does the core problem.

This is that the debate shouldn’t be about building houses at all, but creating places, where people can live good lives with access to all the services they need.  In fact, we need to stop talking about building houses, and start talking about place-making. 

Without this broader view we run a serious risk of repeating the mistakes of the past.  We already have too many huge, car-dependent housing estates without the community and social facilities (schools, playgrounds and green spaces, doctors’ surgeries, local shops and services, including public transport) that people need within walking distance.  It’s these attributes which make places good to live in, and this is the change we need to make, not faster housebuilding for its own sake. 

3. Joining up the dots to achieve the best use of land
Finally, we badly need a way of co-ordinating all the policies that affect land but currently operate in silos.  These include issues as diverse – and important – as levelling up, carbon net zero, nature recovery, tree planting, a shift to farming for ‘public goods’, building 300,000 houses a year, ambitious plans for new infrastructure (especially transport), waste and natural resource management, flood protection, reviving communities and town centres, and access to green space and fresh air.

None of these issues can be addressed in isolation, and they all cross local authority boundaries.  Yet, nothing is said about this challenge and, astonishingly, even the current ‘duty to co-operate’ with neighbouring authorities is to be dropped. 

Today we need a new approach, to help us make the best use of land in our crowded island and achieve genuine sustainability.  This calls for a land use framework, at two levels.  First, England-wide, to integrate and join up the many currently siloed policies which affect land use across the country, bringing ambitions together wherever possible.  And, second, at a level larger than Local Plans (perhaps large counties or groups of districts) to map out the best way, and where, to meet all these challenges.

This is a skin-deep approach to beauty
Finally, it might be expected that I, above all, would welcome the government’s emphasis on beauty. But the Planning Bill has borrowed too simplistically from the Building Better, Building BeautifulCommission (to which I was an adviser) in focusing only on design codes and offering, again, speed, in a “fast track for beauty”.  This is a skin-deep approach, acknowledging only the question of what new buildings look like. 

For while design codes are helpful (especially when they are place-based and sensitive to distinctive styles and materials), beauty is so much more than aesthetics.  It is about how a place feels, how it grows out of the landscape, whether it thrivesand whether it offers a good life to its inhabitants, including accessibility to nature, whether urban or rural. 

Beauty achieved through pattern books and the uncritical application of design codes, coupled with the desire to build quickly, is likely to backfire. Genuine beauty comes from the bottom up, through the investment of time, discussion and understanding of our whole environment, so that we can deploy, with confidence, the planning, architectural and environmental tools and skills that will help us live within our environmental means, connect with and enhance the spirit of each place, and create meaningful places to live.

Thinking should be long term, not about speed
These are serious challenges and they are critical to get right.  The planning decisions we make today will determine how our children, grandchildren and their successors will live, and how sustainable their lives can be. Planning is a tool that can help improve people’s lives all around the country while meeting other long term goals:  we should use its potential for good rather than being seduced by speed.

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.