Planning for the Future (PFTF) – overview by HTA Design LLP
1.1. On 6th August 2020 the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick launched consultation on Planning for the Future , a new white paper which sets out sweeping reforms to the planning system in England. These reforms aim to streamline and modernise the planning process whilst presenting design quality and sustainability as two key anchors, reforming developer contributions, and ensuring more land is available where needed for development. The emphasis is on ‘outcomes’, fundamentally interpreted as the numbers of homes that will be delivered, not long-term outcomes in terms of housing and places that promote well-being.
1.2. In the consultation document, the existing planning system within which the country operates is criticised as being a barrier to building homes, with the Housing Secretary explaining that it is too slow in providing housing and too ineffective in requiring developers to fund the infrastructure to support them. It is also suggested that the planning system does not effectively engage with communities, who could be more meaningfully engaged if the system were more digital-focused. Further criticism includes that it is too complex, there is little focus on design, it is not trusted by the public and forms of assessing housing need, viability and environmental impacts are too opaque. We would not disagree with any of the more detailed points raised regarding areas of the planning system that are problematic.
1.3. This note will briefly set out the proposed reforms, and some of the key areas to consider further as the consultation progresses and additional guidance is released by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). This note will conclude by setting out the next steps of this consultation and how we can become more involved in this.
2. The Proposed Reforms
2.1. Reform of Local Plans
2.1.1. Whilst the National Planning Policy Framework will stay and be representative of all ‘general planning policies’, Local Plans will need to follow a nationally described template, and be prepared and agreed in 30 months, in consultation with local communities. They will need to identify clear rules for development and classify areas into three zones: Growth (for ‘substantial development’), Renewal (where planning permission ‘in principle’ will be given), and Protect (such as the green belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), conservation areas and it could also cover back gardens).
2.1.2. Areas labelled for ‘growth’ will be approved for development via an outline planning consent at the same time as local plans are prepared, allowing for new homes and infrastructure to be built ‘quickly and efficiently’, providing that local design standards are met. To obtain full planning consent, detail needs to be submitted by either a reserved matters application, Local Development Order or a Development Consent Order as appropriate.
2.1.3. Specific uses such as residential, healthcare and education in ‘Renewal’ areas will benefit from much quicker development, again if they are well-designed. Proposals could go ahead once a full planning application, or a Local Development Order is approved.
2.1.4. Areas labelled ‘Protect’ will be safeguarded, and development here will need to submit a full planning application for approval – which is no different to the current system.
2.1.5. Local Plans will no longer be required to be ‘sound’ or ‘deliverable’, and local planning authorities will no longer be bound by a duty to cooperate with neighbouring authorities.
2.2. Digitising and Technology
2.2.1. Information on development proposals will need to be made available to view online ‘by default’, in a shift to encourage more virtual community engagement. Using the PropTech sector and associated technology, the aim here is to ensure that proposals are more accessible and allow for people to view them who are on-the-go. Councils will also look to modernise how planning officers work, improving transparency and productivity. The Covid-19 pandemic underlines how important and beneficial such changes could be for the planning system.
2.3. Design Codes and ‘Beauty’
2.3.1. There is strong emphasis that new housing needs to be ‘beautiful’, echoing the recommendations and ethos of the ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’ Commission which published its final report, Living with Beauty, in January 2020.
2.3.2. ‘Pattern books’, which will take the form of style guides for ‘popular and replicable designs’ will help establish strong, local guidance on good design. These local design codes will follow a national design code, which will set out rules for development across the country. They will need to underly the Local Plan, and the community will need to be involved in their production as will a new design body which will oversee the creation of local design codes.
2.3.3. A ‘fast-track’ process will be created to approve beautiful buildings which reflect ‘local character and preferences’ without delay.
2.4. Reform of Developer Contributions
2.4.1. Section 106 agreements and the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) will be replaced with a new infrastructure levy which be a fixed proportion of the value of a new development, above a set threshold, which is envisioned as helping to deliver more affordable housing. It will also fund local projects such as roads, amenity spaces and subsidising a discount for first-time buyers. At the same time there is an expectation that affordable housing will be delivered ‘on-site’.
2.5. Housing Requirements and Targets
2.5.1. The Government will set out a nationally determined, binding housing requirement. Local planning authorities will then need to set out which land is designated to help meet this requirement, rather than how much, with those authorities in more affluent areas of the country required to release the most land. The assumption is also that development will largely take place on brownfield land and within existing urban areas.
2.6. Sustainability and Climate Change
2.6.1. All homes delivered under the new planning system will need to be ‘zero-carbon ready’, with a requirement that all new homes are carbon neutral by 2050 and that new homes will not require retrofitting.
2.7. The Construction Sector
2.7.1. The reforms are also intended to help Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) access the housing industry, in an effort to improve diversity and competition away from large, well-established housebuilders. The promotion of SMEs and self-builders in the industry is hoped to foster greater innovation, and encourage higher standards.
2.7.2. The use of Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) are encouraged.
3. Key areas for further consideration
3.1. There is no doubt that these far-reaching reforms are coming at time of unprecedented economic, societal and market instability. There is general consensus that the issues within the planning system identified within Planning for the Future are indeed prevalent, and do need to be addressed going forward. Steps to support the housing industry and the wider economy, as both begin to show signs of waning in light of impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, have been welcomed by many key players as an effort to rejuvenate parts of the country which have been most affected.
3.2. There are also fundamental aspects of the planning system which remain unchanged, which within the context of these reforms it is useful to bear in mind. These include plan-making, where local planning authorities will still need to adopt Local Plans in accordance with the NPPF – which is also not set to change. Admittedly they will look different. In some instances, with recently adopted plans, local authorities will be given 42 months to change to the new format, so change will not be immediate. Additionally, it is the case that proposals for development which are not in accordance with the Local Plan and its aspirations for Growth, Renewal and Protection zones will still need to seek full planning permission.
3.3. Overall, there is no theoretical reason why a zoning system could not work in principle. However, with local planning authorities taking on the responsibility for zoning all of their land into three precise categories, there is an urgent call to ensure that they have the right in-house planning, architectural and surveying skills to assess sites for their suitability within ‘Growth’ and ‘Renewal’ areas, and to test their capacity. Resourcing is consequently a major conundrum, which is further aggravated with many planning departments already having cut spending by up to half since 2010 . Any system, let alone one of zoning and neatly categorising, cannot be implemented effectively by planning authorities which have been chronically starved of funding and will continue to be.
3.4. To remedy this, a change in culture is therefore required. Local planning authorities need to be resourced better, and soon, to allow them to get to grips with these fast-paced reforms and be democratically accountable in delivering an effective planning service. The alternative is that the private sector needs to become involved as a partner in effectively giving sites planning permission, which inevitably comes with its own unique set of challenges and conflicts which would need to be overcome. It will also cost money. Additional plans for investment and Government support for PropTech industries would be crucial if this is to be a hallmark of a new digital age for planning.
3.5. MHCLG will need to issue guidance to help clarify the position of local planning authorities who are in the process of preparing a new Local Plan – principally, if they should continue preparing a Plan which would be in line with the current regulations or change course to comply with the emerging guidance. Some local planning authorities have already raised concerns where they are at an advanced stage of the plan-making process, and altering course now would be almost as disruptive as starting the process from the beginning. Another matter mandating further guidance is on how this system would navigate the intricacies of site-specific challenges and constraints. This echoes wider criticism of zoning arrangements for over-simplifying land assembly and development, which is an undeniably complex and detailed process even when extricated from the planning system.
3.6. In relation to design codes and the emphasis on ‘beauty’ as the principal consideration for emerging proposals is concerning for a multitude of reasons. First, ideas of beauty are not all the same, and are subjective in a similar sense to how ‘good’ design can be interpreted. ‘Provably popular’ design in one setting could well be disliked in another. Secondly, although beauty is a virtue of design, it is not the sole purpose of good design which should be of a high quality and meet all three tenets of sustainability (economic, social, and environmental); high-quality homes are more than their appearance and more than ‘beautiful’. Thirdly, the focus on beauty above other design considerations could give rise to a stifling of individualism and innovation. These concerns are compounded by the idea of a ‘fast-track’ process to automatically approve development which is considered ‘beautiful’.
3.7. In reference to design codes, these can be interpreted as widely as the concept of ‘beauty’, and do not always translate into ‘quality’. They would be likely to fail in this pursuit if they are not context-specific and co-designed with residents and local communities. The details on how a national design code will be prepared and implemented are keenly awaited. As the centrepiece of the new planning system which is to be led by beautiful design, it must be applicable to a wide variety of contexts. A key concern here is that once it is established as a basis for development, opposition against proposals which are designed in compliance with it will be stifled. Therefore, it is critical that all stakeholders are involved and participate in its consultation process, before the window of opportunity is closed and not reopened until such a time as the national design code is subsequently reviewed.
3.8. The reform to S106 and CIL also needs to be handled with care and caution. The proposals appear muddled. CIL is to cover affordable housing to a similar extent as ‘current levels’; yet it also stipulates on-site provision. A new infrastructure levy would also need to consider the new types of housing which are beginning to emerge, such as Build-to-Rent, though further guidance on how the new rates will be calculated and subsequently reviewed should be made clear. As it stands, there is conflicting wording on the revenue from the new levy, and scepticism that these revenues are realistic and achievable.
3.9. The target for all homes to be carbon neutral by 2050 is less than ambitious. Though this commitment does remain nevertheless is encouraging, though the target has been pushed back to 2050 from 2016 as the Government had historically intended. It is disappointing that the standard is being set this low, considering that the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) is determined in its pursuit to meet this target by 2030, twenty years earlier.
3.10. Despite this, the reference to MMC is welcomed by many stakeholders within the industry, as a gesture of the Government’s growing support for innovative and sustainable methods of construction. MMC is already gaining traction as the future standard by which most construction will take place, given its proven advantages in reducing construction time and minimising associated impacts (including embodied carbon).
4. Next Steps
4.1. The consultation on Planning for the Future closes on 29th October 2020. It is open to everyone, across public and private sectors as well as the general public.
4.2. Responses can be made online by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or writing to the Planning for the Future Consultation at MHCLG in London.
HTA Design LLP. – housing design specialists has been quoted widely in the press since the release of the Paper.