Does the Planning White Paper offer anything new?
There has been much excitement and debate following the publication of the Planning White Paper Planning for the Future last week. But does it offer us anything new or are the proposed changes similar to what we have seen before?
We don’t have to go back that far to remember the Housing White Paper Fixing Our Broken Housing Market in 2017, but we have to delve back thirteen years to remind ourselves of the last Planning White Paper, Planning for a Sustainable Future published in 2007. Looking back at the 2007 White Paper, did we see a reform of the planning system?
Planning for a Sustainable Future was of course written under a Labour Government shortly before what, until recently, we regarded as a deep recession. It was prior to the NPPF and at a time when there was a tiered planning system of national, regional, county and local planning.
The child on the front cover of the 2007 White Paper will now be an adult. Does she now benefit from living in a more energy efficient home in a sustainable community with access to jobs and the social / community infrastructure needed to live a healthy life as envisaged by the White Paper?
The foreword of the 2007 White Paper noted that “We propose to streamline further the process in the town and country planning system, improve the ability of local authorities to shape their local communities, and ensure that there is a stronger approach to supporting sustainable economic development alongside work to tackle climate change in a way that is integrated with the delivery of other sustainable development objectives”. The overall objective of both White Papers is therefore aligned.
A very notable change is that the 2007 White Paper was long, very long (over 220 pages) whereas the new White Paper is much shorter. There is much less guidance about how the proposals set out in the recent White Paper are to be achieved; thereby placing the onus on others to fill in the detail.
Unsurprisingly, the emphasis of the 2007 White Paper was about sustainability with well over 200 references, compared to just 22 references to ‘sustainability’ in the current document. The 2007 White Paper emphasised the presumption in favour of sustainable development; later of course embedded as the ‘golden thread’ through the NPPF. The principle that development should be approved if the social, economic and environmental benefits outweigh the harm remains at the heart of the proposed reforms.
One of the main changes to the planning system from the 2007 White Paper was the removal of a raft of Planning Policy Guidance Notes / Statements and publication of the NPPF which remained unchanged for over 5 years; and indeed with relatively little alteration since. This must undoubtedly be regarded as a successful proposal and is perhaps the thinking behind the current proposal to create local plans which are significantly shorter in length, and with the NPPF becoming the ‘rule-book’ for development management too.
In 2007 the Government also proposed the removal of the undemocratic regional tier of governance (and with it regional and structure plans) and a greater role for local communities to shape their neighbourhoods. This was a radical change to the planning system which started the ‘Big Society’ agenda of encouraging communities to take a greater role in shaping the places they live. Whilst there have been calls for the return of regional planning; and indeed the regional planning system provided in London through the London Plan and the role of the Mayor of London has seen measurable success, the new White Paper does not propose to reintroduce regional planning. Indeed it proposes the removal of the Duty to Co-operate which encouraged cross boundary planning strategy. The proposals do however suggest that housing targets will be set at a national level and therefore a return to ‘Big Government’.
The fundamentals of a plan-led planning system has also not changed. The White Paper does however promise a more predictable planning system. Whilst this may be welcomed initially by the development sector, the suggested zoning approach with areas of ‘growth’, ‘renewal’ and ‘protect’, implies a more rigid system where there is less flexibility to negotiate a planning application, which is contrary to the development plan, and where the bar is likely to be much higher than it currently is. It is the current ability to demonstrate that there are material considerations that justify a departure from the development plan that often delivers the innovation, creativity and regeneration seen across the development sector. There are also particular implications for the rural sector, which has seen support through national guidance to date, albeit with varying results at the local level.
Now, as was the case back in 2007, the importance of having an up-to-date development plan against which planning applications are determined is clear. Whilst more local planning authorities now have up-to-date development plans, there are still far too many planning applications being determined against documents which predate the original NPPF (2012) and some which pre-date the 2007 White Paper.
The planning system is complex and therefore perhaps it’s naïve to think that it’s possible to simplify the system in order to speed up the process. The role of the planning system in a democratic society has to balance competing priorities to meet the needs of local communities through the delivery of housing, employment, social and physical infrastructure, whilst also protecting the natural environment. Striking the right balance between these competing priorities is therefore often a very complex process with many hours spent assessing the harm resulting from development, identifying mitigation to reduce that harm, and ultimately balancing this against the planning benefits.
In 2019, the delivery of new homes was at a 30 year high and the last 10 years has seen the delivery (or substantial progress) of many large strategic infrastructure projects across the country. Therefore, to accuse the planning system of failing to deliver would be unfair. However, there is a consensus that the process remains too slow, too uncertain, too bureaucratic, and too procedural and it still falls short of delivering enough homes in the right places. Most of those in the development sector would support the need to speed up the planning system; whether that is plan-making or decision-taking, but few would support this at the expense of an undemocratic system which stifles creativity and delivers only what the market decides.
The 2007 White Paper was extensive and included many proposals; including in particular a strategy to determine and deliver planning applications for major infrastructure projects. Whilst cynics may dismiss a White Paper as something that includes proposals that will later not materialise, a quick skim of the 2007 White Paper suggests that many of the proposals have been implemented and form the basis of today’s planning system.
So the Planning White Paper does offer us a new planning system, but not one that is entirely unrecognisable from the one that exists today. Many of the current principles remain – preparation of development plans based on sound evidence, and schemes determined by local planning authorities in consultation with stakeholders and communities. Its ambition seems to be to retain what is best about the current system and to address its shortcomings.
The current Government has a mantra of ‘getting the job done’ and we should therefore all plan for the reforms that lie ahead.