Over the past 20 years The Negotiator has interviewed many small and medium size developers and with predictable reliability all have bemoaned England’s planning system.
Too slow, too bureaucratic and expensive to attempt, the process of gaining planning permission in England has needed extraordinary patience and deep pockets – something too often all but the big corporates have access to.
But if the government can push through its proposed planning reforms, then smaller developers will get what they always wanted – a relatively fast and sensible way to get more homes built which is based on national standards rather than time-consuming interpretations of wildly variable local rules.
Or at least that is how the Prime Minister wants to present it as part of his agenda to radically reform the UK and ‘release its potential’.
At the launch of the Build Build Build policy, he said, “Thanks to our planning system, we have nowhere near enough homes in the right places. People cannot afford to move to where their talents can be matched with opportunity.
The whole thing is beginning to crumble and the time has come to do what too many have for too long lacked the courage to do – tear it down and start again. Boris Johnson, Prime Minister.
“Businesses cannot afford to grow and create jobs. The whole thing is beginning to crumble and the time has come to do what too many have for too long lacked the courage to do: tear it down and start again.”
That is the politician’s pitch, but the white paper, Planning for the Future, isn’t quite the ‘tear it down’ document the Prime Minister claims it to be, closer inspection reveals.
He’s right, of course, that the planning system is too discretionary rather than rules-based – so decision-making in one borough can be significantly different to those in a neighbouring one – and that assessments of housing need, viability and environmental impacts are often based on out-of-date information and done on a case-by-case basis.
Councils come in for a drubbing in the white paper, too, slammed for their failure to adopt Local Plans. These are the local blueprints for housing need that councils supposed to adopt and update regularly to guide planners’ decisions. Then we come to developer contributions to local affordable housing and infrastructure construction, a subject that Boris knows well.
While Mayor of London between 2008 and 2016, Johnson was criticised for signing off several large-scale property developments that included very few or no affordable homes.
And the white paper is critical of ‘planning obligations’ such as the 106 agreements through which developer contributions are negotiated and which it says “increases planning risk for developers and landowners, thus discouraging development and new entrants”.
It also condemns many councils’ focus on overly bureaucratic processes, rather than considering the aesthetics of homes.
But before we look at what the government proposals, is must be noted that we have been here before.
Oliver Letwin’s 2018 report into planning and land banking by big builders – which was disproven by his inquiries – recognised that we’ve been working with a planning system that has its roots in the housing needs of the post-war era.
The key proposals:
- Streamline the planning process by slimming down Local Plans and dividing them into three development area types; ‘renewal’, ‘development’ and ‘protected’.
- Establish national design codes and rules that developers can then follow locally when applying for permission to build, which – it is claimed – will reduce the process by two thirds.
- Make councils use technology better to manage planning applications and engage more easily with local people over development proposals and get them involved earlier.
- Create a single ‘sustainability development test’ to streamline decision making.
- Make planning applications more visual, and easy to understand.
- Limit the time councils can take to make decisions to 30 months.
- Introduce a rules-based and largely digital process for decision making; no more applications nailed to signposts.
- Make it easier for those who want to build beautifully through the introduction of a ‘fast-track for beauty’ system through changes to national policy and legislation.
- Introduce a quicker, simpler framework for assessing environmental impacts and enhancement opportunities that speeds up the process while protecting and enhancing England’s unique ecosystems.
- Ensure that each local planning authority has a chief officer for design and place-making.
- Make the Infrastructure Levy a nationally-set standard rather than being decided via a locally-focussed and case-by-case system. This will ‘sweep away months of negotiation of Section 106 agreements’, it is claimed.
- A new nationally-determined, binding housing requirement that local planning authorities would have to deliver through their Local Plans or face financial penalties.
To mimic the Prime Minister’s own penchant for metaphors, this is more a back-to-the bricks restoration of a crumbling old house, rather than his claim that it tears the old planning system down and starts again.
But it is clear what the government is trying to achieve; a more centralised system that uses national rules and codes to steer Local Plans and decision making.
This aspect of the reforms has attracted the most criticism. Legal firm Irwin Mitchell frames it as ‘a large scale centralisation of the planning system, and the biggest shift away from localism in a generation’.
“To date every attempt to simplify the planning system has only served to make it more complicated,” says the company’s spokesperson Nicola Gooch.
“It will be interesting to see if this is the package of reforms that finally breaks that trend.
“We are doubtful of how simple a system can be when it will only apply to England. Planning and the environment are devolved matters. As such, cross-border developments are now likely to become more complex as Wales and Scotland look for forge their own way in these areas.”
And while many developers are ecstatic that the planning system is to become cheaper, faster and easier to navigate, such an approach comes with risks, including political ones.
Hardly mentioned within the white paper is the challenge of nimbyism. While The Negotiator has interviewed many developers, we have also spoken to local activists fighting housing developments on their own patch.
Most complain about new housing stock being built in their area, but in the same breath grumble that their children cannot afford to buy homes in their own back yards.
The white paper says their ‘voices will be heard’ in the process but if local communities wholly oppose a development, where does the planning process go from there?
As the Local Government Association says in its response to the white paper: “Any loss of local control over developments would be a concern.
“It would deprive communities of the ability to define the area they live in and know best and risk giving developers the freedom to ride roughshod over local areas.”
The LGA also rejects the thinly-veiled accusations within the white paper that councils are part of the problem and not the solution, and reminds the government that too many of the planning application that are approved by councils are not completed, something the white paper swerves.
There are also several holes in the proposed reforms; as planning law consultants Pinsent Masons points out, there will be many areas of the UK where the ‘renewal’, ‘development’ and ‘protected’ labels will be difficult to apply.
The white paper as it stands will also pass more control to local planners over the master-planning stage of larger developments.
And many local authorities are worried that the reforms will reduce public involvement in Local Plan creation and adoption in the name of planning speed.
There have also been calls for the government to better fund planning – the irony is not lost on most people including developers that the government calls the planning process ‘broken’ and yet has overseen huge spending cuts which have seen planning departments cut to the bone.
“With these new reforms potentially representing the biggest transformation in the system since the post-war years, funding is the final area which needs significant attention,” Legal & General says in its response to the proposals.
“Planning departments continue to need more resources to deliver. If government is to create these welcome and revolutionary changes to the system, they must provide an overhaul of funding within local authority planning departments.”
Have your say
To have your say in the process, read the full document at which includes detailed questions to answer about the reforms, and email them back to