The government is proposing radical changes to our planning system and produced a glossy white paper for public consultation which, before you rush to comment, closed in October. In it there are big changes to Local Plans, the speeding up and digitalising of the planning process, and emphasis on ‘beautiful and sustainable places’. 

We wanted to find out what local people involved in planning, design and build thought about the proposals having had a little time to digest the 84 pages of government vision. But what are the main changes in store for the housing industry and the public?

Speed of planning and building seems to be the thrust of the paper, perhaps part of plans to build back the economy from the pandemic’s effects on industry and jobs. This appears to be a strong motivator. There is also a reference to people spending more time in their homes because of Covid-19, and the need for those homes to be of a better standard in some cases. 

One way of speeding up development, the paper suggests, is to categorise all land with a potential for development as either Growth – areas for substantial development; Renewal – areas suitable for ‘gentle densification’ or Protected – development is restricted in these areas. This categorisation would be done as the new way of putting together the Local Plan which is to lay down planning rules, not just policies, for the following 10 years. If an area is categorised as a Growth area for instance, any development applications on that land would be ‘automatically secured’.

Paul Horton, Frome Town Councillor, freelance architectural designer and Frome Area Community Land Trust (FACLT) Director has an interest in planning from those different perspectives and says “What I like least about the White Paper is the allocation of land into the 3 categories with practically no local consultation, as I understand it, once land has been allocated. This is a disaster for local democracy and community engagement!” 

This is a view that is in part echoed by the National Community Land Trust Network in their official response to the consultation of the paper. They too are concerned about limiting opportunity for communities to have their say on planning applications. But regarding categorisation of land, would like to see community led housing plans in Renewal and Protected areas given the same fast track priorities as larger developments would have in the Growth areas, provided they can demonstrate local support. 

Councillor Horton also disputes that it is actually the slow planning process that is causing the UK’s housing problem but feels that the fault is one of economics. He went on to say, “Fundamentally, the planning reforms are supposedly to address the housing crisis by allowing more homes to be built and the government is saying part of the reason more homes aren’t built is the current planning system. As far as I see it, none of this is sound logic, so the proposed planning reform is flawed from the outset! The housing crisis isn’t so much about lack of building but the cost of land and therefore housing. It doesn’t matter how many more houses are built, the cost isn’t simply going to come down because of greater supply.”

No doubt some changes to the way a Local Plan is created will be welcomed. Andrew Simpson, Director of NVB Architects in Frome is just one local professional who thinks the process needs simplifying. He commented, “My experience is that Local Plans are too complex and difficult to understand for most people (including many design professionals), and agree that the time it takes to prepare them means that they are often out of date by the time they are completed. A move towards a more streamlined graphic and possibly prescriptive masterplan for each area seems like a good idea to me, provided it does not quash creativity and innovation.”

The white paper’s emphasis on the planning process being made more digital is very strong, to the point where the casual reader might assume a software company was waiting in the wings to take on this multi-platform delivery so that the public no longer would need to rely on notices on lamp posts or in newspapers. Curtailing the cynicism for a moment and getting back to the nitty gritty of the changes proposed…

Section 106 in planning applications, as some will be familiar with, is the current method of charging any single person or company developing land so as to mitigate costs to local infrastructure. 

Under the white paper plans it would be replaced by a Community Infrastructure Levy set nationally (and non-negotiable) and based on the market value of the development at point of sale. Local authorities would have more control on how the Levy is spent including the provision of affordable housing. If the market value of a project is below a certain threshold, no levy would be charged which may benefit small developers. 

Also, developers will not have to build affordable homes unless the development has 40 or 50 homes as opposed to the current threshold of 10 homes. 

Section 106 agreements are currently responsible for about half of all affordable housing according to Kate Henderson of the National Housing Federation and there are many concerns that affordable housing will be negatively affected. 

Paul Horton again: “Replacing section 106 payments with the infrastructure levy does have some merit in terms of clarity, as I understand it. However, again, the proposals seem to be deeply flawed and are likely to lead to reduced benefit for communities where development is taking place. This is also true, I believe, of the government promotion of ‘First Homes’ which may well replace, in certain situations, the requirement to build affordable and social housing.”

Considering climate change and the need to insulate our current homes to cut emissions, the white paper must be full of enforcements for developers to build green, you would think. Frome-based architect Terry Pinto, Director of PAAD Architects says not. He says the government-proposed requirements for sustainable and environmental building is “insufficient as it still kowtows to the major developers. There is still no holistic method of analysing buildings, so I feel that the Code for Sustainable Homes should be resurrected in one way or another. Also, the grants system is flawed as it is skewed to larger scale businesses. If small businesses could be accredited affordably, there would be a real critical mass of contractors who could make a change.”

Councillors at Mendip District Council also conclude that there is not enough emphasis on detail in ‘Planning for the Future’ when it comes to environmentally sound building. In their response to the paper on this topic, the MDC cabinet had this to say “The Paper makes positive commitments in relation to climate change and that all new homes should be ‘zero carbon ready’. The lack of detail may result in commitments being watered down. Future Local Plans may only have specific roles in setting out climate change policies with more emphasis on building regulations. Local plans will focus on areas such as flooding or renewables.”

Let’s give the last local comment to Andrew Simpson of NVB Architects who appears hopeful about the proposals: “The thing that struck me most about the document was the repeat emphasis on ‘beauty’. Design will always be subjective, but the current planning system seems to do little to promote or celebrate beauty in the built environment. If a new system can change this, I am hopeful that we will leave a better legacy for our children.”

There are many aspects to debate in this paper because the proposals are so far reaching and varied. Fair Housing for Frome will be keeping a beady eye on the journey of the plans through parliament and how they might affect the local community. 

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