The ghosts of planning - past, present and future

The ghosts of planning - past, present and future

by aurora planning

Photo by Sebi Pintilie from Pexels

In September, we shared a guest blog post from Amanda Beresford of Schofield Sweeney LLP on planning reforms in England, noting that the planning systems in each of the UK’s devolved jurisdictions have much that they can learn from each other. Since then, we have been reflecting on the changes covered in Amanda’s blog, how we got to where we are, and what the future holds for the planning system both north and south of the border. While we would definitely not characterise the planning system as a Scrooge, proposals for reform in both Scotland and England have been underpinned by a belief that the system is failing to deliver the development that it should, with the implication being that it is somewhat miserly in that regard. So, getting into the festive spirit with Dickens’ three Christmas ghosts, here are some reflections on planning past, present and future…
The planning system as we know it was created in the post war years with its roots in public health legislation and with its purpose being to address issues of overcrowding, pollution and unsuitable housing arising from the rapid expansion of our towns and cities. The intention then was not to regulate who can build what and where just for the sake of it, but to do so in the public interest, and this fundamental principle of planning is just as important today as it was then. If nothing else, the coronavirus pandemic has surely been a hard reminder of the importance of public health, and the contribution that planning can make to that! And, when thinking about what we expect from the planning system today, historic images of some of the slum housing that preceded it serve as a stark reminder of what it seeks to protect us from, and a past that no-one should want to return to.  
Today, there is often perceived to be a tension between regulations that control the quality of new development and pressure to deliver that development – in particular housing – in the quantities required to meet demand. And it is this which has been a key driver behind reforms in recent years, across all regions of the UK. For example, new permitted development rights were introduced in England in 2013 to try to meet demand for housing by allowing offices and commercial buildings to be converted to residential use (subject to some exceptions and restrictions) without the need to apply for planning permission. Subsequent extensions to permitted development rights and other changes described in our September blog post are also specifically intended to quicken the delivery of new housing in England, primarily through reducing the level of regulation to which new development is subject.
But will these changes deliver the homes that are needed?
In May 2019, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) published a report on the impacts of extending permitted development rights for office-to residential changes of use in England, the findings of which make for interesting reading. Notably, this indicates that requiring such schemes to apply for planning permission is not necessarily the constraint it is perceived to be, and that most planning applications are actually approved. Having got consent however, only 64% of applications considered in the report were then implemented. So, even accounting for the fact that developers are more likely to apply for planning permission if they think there is a chance of approval, there are clearly factors other than the planning system that are impeding the delivery of housing.  
The same report also raises concerns about the quality of some of housing delivered under permitted development rights, stating:
“Evidence of this reduction in quality included:

  • studio flats just 15 or 16m2
  • no access to private or communal amenity space
  • buildings with barely any changes done to convert from office to residential use
  • residential developments in the middle of industrial estates
  • 77% of units in the case study buildings were studio or one bedroom flats.” 

Although the report also makes it clear that there are some very good schemes, the quality being delivered is clearly an issue that needs to be addressed, and it is hard to see how reducing regulation further can do this.
Similar concerns arise around proposals to radically overhaul the English system and replace it with one that zones places as being for growth, for renewal or for protection, with a design code mandating what is and is not permitted in each. On the face of it, this makes the system simpler and more predictable, which will be welcomed by many. On the other hand, if quality housing is to be delivered, then any code which specifies what can or cannot be built in a certain zone will need to be very detailed and prescriptive, with this then being a somewhat rigid and blunt instrument. Alternatively, if the code is more permissive, then it is not clear how quality would be ensured, let alone quality affordable housing.
Looking to the future, in both Scotland and England, a prevalence of empty buildings in many of our towns and cities highlights a need for more flexibility when it comes to the redevelopment of these to facilitate the sustainable use of land and the delivery of new housing. And, while this is not a new issue, it is particularly pertinent in light of the coronavirus pandemic, which is likely to result in an increase in the number of empty office buildings as more people work from home, challenges for city centres with the acceleration of on-line shopping, and a need for more homes that are also suitable for home working arrangements. However, that must be balanced against the need to ensure the delivery of new development (in particular new housing) that is fit for purpose in terms both of where it is located and the quality of it, with this accompanied by the infrastructure and services required to support the development. If the evidence from RICS suggests that reducing regulation is not the way to do this, what then is?
The response to the consultation on proposed changes in England will no doubt throw up a number of new ideas, but it is likely that culture change will also be essential to ensuring that any reforms are effective in achieving the desired outcomes. That culture change must come from all stakeholders in the planning process, not just planning authorities, which seemed to be the expectation of others when the Scottish Government emphasised the importance of this in introducing the reforms encompassed in the Planning etc. (Scotland) Act 2006. And the culture change should be about ensuring that all parties understand the purpose of planning (which, in Scotland at least, is defined in the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 as being “to manage the development and use of land in the long term public interest”), and what planning is able to achieve.  It should also be about encouraging more positive and pro-active engagement with the planning system, again for all parties, including those who will ultimately be affected by any development proposed. Indeed, a recent report by the Scottish Land Commission shows that early engagement delivers a number of benefits, including speeding up the process, ironing out problems early on, and delivering development that meets people’s needs (which, hopefully, is what everyone ultimately wants to see!). And, while that report relates to engagement with local communities, the same principles apply equally to engaging with the planning authority, with our own experience being that pro-actively engaging with local authority planners can deliver valuable results, including proposals being changed for the better, when all parties agree that’s the right thing to do.
The moral of the story is that it is time to challenge the idea that the planning system is a miserly constraint to development, and instead embrace it as a process that helps to deliver better, and healthier, places that are fit for the future, rather than the slums of the past.

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Thanks for reading, and merry christmas!

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