Report highlights that the process has been fundamentally unchanged since 1947

Policy Exchange, the UK’s leading thinktank, has called for fundamental changes to the planning system. The authors state their belief that “if the rules of the game are clear from the beginning, then builders will be able to deliver the housing England needs.”

The 77-page report, published at the end of January 2020, considers the history of the planning process since 1947 when the Government first assumed total control over land use within England, and then devolved the power to deny any new construction to boroughs and townships. The report concludes that although the system has been tinkered with over the past few decades, the fundamental principles have remained unchanged for over 70 years and are no longer fit for purpose.

Key findings

The key findings within the paper are that:

  • Land use is rationed depending on what planners think is ‘needed’, and supply is therefore limited to their aspirations rather than reality
  • Excessive planning restrictions have caused a redistribution of wealth and income from renters to homeowners
  • The planning system has been captured by the ‘noisy minority’
  • The complexity and risk of the planning system has diminished the country’s base of small and medium-sized developers
  • Planners are tasked with achieving too many policy objectives
  • The complexity and discretionary nature of the planning system means that decisions are regularly challenged in the courts, which increases costs, risk and delays when navigating the planning process

Recommendations

The authors urge the Government to be bold and ambitious in establishing a new system that can meet the challenges the country now faces, including:

Introduce a binary zonal land use planning system

Land should be zoned either as development land, or non-development land. Development land would include existing urban areas and new urban extensions made possible by infrastructure improvements, and would have a presumption in favour of new development. Non-development land would be restricted to minor development, which would only be possible in more restricted circumstances.

This new system would include the following changes:

  • In place of specific land uses allocated to private land plots by the state, market conditions should determine how urban space is used in the development zone
  • Instead, of ‘need’ driving designations, Policy Exchange recommends that factors such as access potential, levels of environmental disturbance, and the potential to expand should determine whether land Is designated as ‘development land’

End detailed land use allocations

Policy Exchange believe that local planning authorities have ineffective and inefficient at micro-managing land markets. As a result, they suggest that the planning system should not try to control what specific activity can take place on individual land plots based on projections of housing and commercial ‘need’. This would mean that the supply of new homes, offices and other types of land use would no longer be capped by local planning authorities and instead be determined by market forces.

Redefine what a local plan should be

The report suggests radically reforming the structure and objectives of local plans. It calls for the Government to provide clear rules on what can and can’t be developed in ‘development land’ and ‘non-development land.

However, it does also suggest allowing some local input into how these rules are implemented. It advises that communities in development zones should have the power to set development rules for new development in their area. These rules would not determine the act of development, but consider the form of new development and how it retains and adds to an area’s sense of place.

Ensure affordable housing with good access

The proposal believes that the strategic focus of local plans should be for real estate to be affordable and for travel within a place to be fast and cheap. To achieve that goal, it suggests that the planning of infrastructure provision should be a central feature of local plans. Local plans should set out what new infrastructure is required, how it can be financed through a coordination of public and private investment, and the effect of new infrastructure on land prices and rents.

Protect the environment

Policy Exchange states that, as a matter of course, environmental and heritage planning protections should be transposed into a new system. This would include National Parks, Areas of Natural Beauty, building listings and conservation areas. Green Belt protections would be reviewed to clarify what purpose they are supposed to be serving and whether it is still justified. In general, land uses which are of a low or even negative commercial value but high social value should be protected, for instance areas of high natural capital and valuable urban green space (e.g. playing fields).

Richard Payne, Director of Development said, “We welcome this robust challenge to the planning system – the current regime suppresses supply, drives up costs and needs fundamental reform if the UK is to have any chance of building the volume of quality housing stock that is required. There are several bold recommendations within the report, and we look forward with interest to see whether the Government will accept the need for a root-and-branch review of the planning regime.”