The government has set out a new plan to reform the UK’s planning system. The white paper, entitled Planning for the future (Full PDF here), sets out sweeping reforms to an old-fashioned planning system that is unpopular with both developers and the general public.
What is the problem with the current planning system?
There are a lot of issues with the system as it stands, but in general it’s very slow, bureaucratic and uncertain, while also being easily manipulated by larger and more aggressive firms with pockets deep enough to fight cash-strapped local councils. Hence why smaller developers go bust trying to develop brownfield sites in urban environments, while the big players get away with whacking a hundred McMansions on virgin farmland.
What does the new white paper promise?
The Holy Grail, more or less. Among other things, the government believes its reforms will speed up the pace of development, provide increased numbers of high-quality, affordable homes, improve local infrastructure, cut carbon emissions, protect green belt land, promote small businesses and make new homes more beautiful.
It’s easy to be cynical about such a pie-in-the-sky list of claims, but ultimately reforms on this scale don’t come along very often, and it’s no bad thing to set ambitious goals. What’s more, when you drill down into the detail, there are some interesting aspects to the white paper.
A focus on smaller builders
Smaller housebuilders have been in decline for a long time. They were hit hard by the 2007-9 crash, and in the past 30 years they've gone from building 40% of new-build homes to just 12%.
Many of these firms say that the planning process is a major hurdle. They claim it's lengthy and expensive, and because the rules aren't always clear, they can end up pouring a huge amount of money and time into projects that never get off the ground. Where a larger company can take that hit, smaller outfits often can't.
The government proposes to give smaller builders like these a bit of a leg up, through a variety of measures including introducing fast-track development routes, exempting them from certain levies and helping them identify and access land that's suitable for development so they don’t waste resources on projects that are unlikely to get off the ground.
Community agreement and attractive developments
Local objection is a huge obstacle to housebuilding, and while there will always be the odd NIMBY who refuses to consider any development whatsoever, many of the people who kick up a fuss have valid points. New developments are often insular estates, built in identikit styles that jar with other local buildings. Though developers often make contributions to local infrastructure, the negative effects on local communities aren’t always given much weight, and things like traffic impact figures can be fiddled to assume unrealistic levels of car sharing or public transport use.
The Planning for the future white paper leans heavily on a report released at the beginning of 2020 called Living with beauty. Produced by an independent body called the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, the report argued that the way to reduce local opposition was to make development more attractive to local people. Headed up by the late writer and philosopher, Sir Roger Scruton, the commission was made up of a wide range of specialists – including industry representatives – and among the report’s key recommendations was involving local communities in establishing local development standards. This essentially means giving local people a meaningful input into the development process before plans are even submitted.
A renewed focus on the aesthetics of housing is a quietly revolutionary concept – the idea that people are happier if they live in more beautiful places.
Funding for infrastructure
Part of getting buy-in from local communities is ensuring that new developments are complementary, rather than parasitic, and this is particularly true of the impact on local infrastructure. One line in particular jumps out of the consultation: that development ‘should generate net gains for the quality of our built and natural environments – not just “no net harm”.’
Developers do currently make contributions towards local infrastructure, but this varies substantially by area. Some local authorities are much more skilled than others when it comes to negotiating these contributions, and the unpredictable nature of the process means that the level of benefit to local communities is often not at all clear.
The government proposes to standardise these contributions, based on the increase in final value that comes with developing the land. This would make infrastructure improvements more predictable, and the government also proposes to allow local authorities to borrow against this levy, meaning that infrastructure work could be carried out alongside the development work, rather than lagging behind it (or never materialising at all) as can sometimes be the case. Minimum thresholds should ensure that smaller sites are still viable for development, once again helping smaller firms to see projects through.
Cutting down bureaucracy
Underpinning the planning process are local development plans, produced by local authorities. Over the years, these have become vast, unwieldy documents, in some cases running to 500 pages and taking an average of seven years to produce. Even when they are completed, they are often unclear about what development is permitted, and can be extraordinarily difficult for even industry professionals to decipher.
The new consultation proposes simplifying these reports drastically. Land would be divided into three categories depending on its potential for development, and communities would be heavily involved in the process. Every area would have to have a housing development plan (according to the white paper, many currently do not), and these standardised documents would give developers a much clearer idea of what sort of development might be permitted where.
Tied in with these proposed changes to the planning system are some other government announcements. Notably, they’ve confirmed that the new First Homes home ownership scheme will offer a 30% discount to first-time buyers, key workers and local people. There are also further measures to streamline the planning process, help councils develop their local housing plans and provide certain exemptions that should help smaller developers weather the Coronavirus crisis.
It’ll be a while before these reforms actually see the light of day, and there’s always the possibility that they will be watered down when industry bodies and local councils have had a chance to feed back on the proposals, but the white paper makes for a suitably ambitious starting point. It’s an urgent fact that we need to build more homes, and if the government can deliver on even some of the content of the white paper then it will be welcome news to developers and local communities alike.
Disclaimer: Ezylet is not qualified to give legal or financial advice. Any information shared in the above blog is an opinion based on personal experiences within the property rental sector, and should never be construed as legal or professional advice.