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Planning reforms flow from a market utopian view of housing and raise concerns about impacts for society and the environment

By Ben Clifford, UCL

Radical reforms proposed to the planning system in England seek to deliver more housing by reducing ‘planning risk’, the uncertainty associated with navigating the regulatory process to gain permission for development. These proposals, made by the UK government in a white paper published in August 2020, would alter most elements of the current approach, including how plans are made, decision-making on consenting individual proposals, and engagement opportunities for stakeholders. These reforms could have significant implications for our built and natural environments, as well as for local democracy, and so should be of interest to many. 

Although the planning system deals with much more than just housing, the driver for making significant changes to the planning system comes from the so-called ‘housing crisis’ in England (planning is a devolved issue in the UK). The housing crisis is actually a multi-faceted issue, involving issues of demand for, and supply of, housing, affordability of housing, geographical location of housing and quality of housing. This means it is understood in different ways by different people within it.

Broadly speaking, however, insufficient new housing is being built to meet demand, particularly in London and the South East of England, and there is a lack of affordable housing across the country. The government’s aim to see 300,000 new homes per annum constructed is often cited, alongside the fact this target is not being met (delivery was 220,000 in 2017-18).

This apparent supply-side failure has long been linked by primarily right-wing think tanks to planning regulation in England. A market fundamentalist view suggests that if only there weren’t unnecessary planning restrictions, then a free market would deliver all the housing needed, in the right places to match demand and apparently at higher quality. 

The reform proposals

Such market-led thinking has informed government policy, with the white paper taking a theoretical starting point that radical planning reform is necessary. The government claims that the housing crisis is linked to the fact that the UK planning system takes a discretionary approach. This means that a proposed development is not automatically given permission on the basis of its match with the policies in the plans made by local councils, and those local plans are themselves more indicators of where and in what form development is likely to be allowed. Each scheme is then also subject to a case-by-case basis on its merits before planning permission is granted.

The proposals suggest that an approach based on zoning is required instead. Under this approach, there is no debate about the advantages and disadvantages of a particular scheme, just the general principles governing development in an area. If a scheme complies with the zoning plan requirements, it would then be given permission in principle automatically, albeit subject to potential further checks on the details of the proposal. To support this, local plans will zone areas as for ‘growth’, ‘renewal’ or ‘protection’. 

Alongside the move to zoning, greater use would be made of digital approaches, with maps showing which rules apply to any particular site, online tools for consultation and the idea that codes and regulations are written in a ‘machine-readable format’ so that digital services can apparently automatically screen proposed developments.

In addition, the current system sees local authorities negotiate the contribution that a developer makes towards affordable housing and local infrastructure on a case-by-case basis utilising Section 106 agreements on the basis that planning permission and development see significant increases in land value, a percentage of which the state can then put to social use. These individual negotiations would be replaced by standardised tariffs across England. 

Finally, the new style local plans would be prepared by every local authority in just 30 months, and allocate sites on the basis of housing need which has been modelled by central government rather than locally.

Cause for concern – missing issues

There has been some concern expressed about these proposals. The white paper takes a ‘motherhood and apple pie’ type view that by changing our planning approach, suddenly there will be more housing delivered, of higher quality and improved affordability and numerous other benefits. The government makes comparisons with lower house prices in other countries to suggest that the planning system in England is at fault. Planning does impact housing supply and house prices – but so do a range of other factors. 

The proposals have little to say about issues related to our land market and patterns of land ownership. It does not consider that in other countries, more proactive local state action in land assembly (buying sites and preparing them for development) helps the process of building. 

Not mentioning ‘social housing’, it overlooks the potential of local authorities rather than private developers to deliver new housing. It ignores the way the private sector manages the rate of building out new housing even when it has planning permission, in order to maintain profitability. More fundamentally, it ignores the way flows of investment income impact housing demand and so affordability with housing increasingly seen as in a financialised way as an investment opportunity rather than on the basis of its use value as a place to live.

Further, it does not tackle the big issue of regional inequality in the UK. This drives housing demand higher in London and the South East of England than it might otherwise be, but at the same time a large swathe of land around London is protected from development as ‘green belt’. Perhaps linked to fact that most constituencies containing large tracts of green belt land are represented by Conservative MPs dependent on an often affluent electorate favouring the restrictions on development this imposes, , the white paper proposes it will all continue to be safe-guarded from development as part of the ‘protect zone’. There is room for debate about the merits of the green belt, but the combination of regional inequality driving demand, constraints of basic physical geography and reduced developable land due to not reforming the green belt does make it harder to tackle housing pressures in the South East.

In other words, the reforms suggest the planning system is to blame for the housing crisis without acknowledging the many different drivers and understandings of that crisis. Without tackling various other factors, it will fail to resolve the issues it seeks to address. And, if supply were to somehow increase to the point everyone could afford to buy a house, this would have different economic consequences given how much wealth in the UK is tied-up in housing.

Looking beyond housing, the proposals have little to say about climate change and sustainability, with only quite weak commitments around things like carbon neutral development. They also do not provide any sense of the merits and weaknesses of zoning as opposed to discretionary planning systems, nor acknowledge that rather than a hard distinction between the two, there are blurred boundaries along a continuum of flexibility seen in many approaches internationally. Planning is reduced in the white paper to little more than a licensing process for housebuilding.

There is also no acknowledgement of the impacts of previous government reforms, which have led to some of the problems with the existing planning system, such as the removal of regional planning in 2010 (so that there is a large gap for sub-national strategic coordination responding to the differentiated geographies between the national and local scales), or measures like the abolition of the ability to require higher energy performance from new housing – the Code for Sustainable Homes – in 2015, or the austerity reductions to local government which have impacted local planning skills and resources, with consequent reduced capacity.

Car park and house under grey sky
A house created through a permitted development conversion in Bristol, England. Ben Clifford, Author provided

Cause for concern – consequence of reforms

In addition to some issues not sufficiently acknowledged or addressed in the white paper, the reform proposals also come with some significant downsides. There is reduced opportunity for community consultation. At present, local communities can be engaged when individual proposals are made as well as when local plans are made. This consultation on individual schemes looks set to disappear, reducing the opportunity to capture local knowledge or promote social justice. 

A digital approach might also increase the ability for some parts of society to be engaged in consultation events at the expense of others without the necessary technology. The mention of machine-led decision making also potentially risks replacing the overly technocratic approaches on the 1960s, when planners were arguably too convinced of their own expertise over local knowledges, with a digitocratic approach which reduces the inherent complexities of places to over-simplified codes and regulations with no opportunity for community input or a scheme based consideration of the merits of a proposal. Algorithmic accountability is something which has recently been in the news in relation to exam grades in the UK and is an issue requiring much further thought than given in this white paper.

The proposals also act to reduce the ability of local authorities to exercise planning control. This continues an existing trend that allows more types of development to follow a streamlined planning consent route, known as permitted development. My own research, with colleagues, has found that this deregulation has led to significant reductions in the quality of new housing delivered.

The government is placing great emphasis on the need for schemes to comply with design codes in future, but the rhetoric has very much been about the exterior appearance of buildings – an aesthetic approach to design – rather than how well they work as homes for people to live in. 

The fact the government is still not requiring new permitted development housing to meet their own suggested space standards is reason enough to be deeply concerned about the future, when local authorities will have much reduced power to negotiate improvements to schemes and many developers seem to be often unwilling to comply with things which are not required standards, as is the fact that an interim proposal already suggests reducing the contribution of developers towards affordable housing.

Although the white paper does mention implementing the new system, it does not acknowledge the full scale of putting its proposals into practice. Planning reform has often been marked by insufficient guidance, resourcing and attention to skills. Without sufficient resources to fund a reformed approach, even elements of the reforms which some are welcoming such as increased use of design codes could fail to work as intended. Severe disruption may lie ahead.

Any regulatory system comes with costs, but there can also be benefits and the value of planning is often overlooked in analyses. The planning system as it currently operates in England would probably not be described as perfect by anyone working in and with it, nor does planning have unrestricted agency, but it does have important impacts on the material realities of our environments. Given the risks of further potentially damaging reforms driven by a zombie neoliberalism, a more positive view for the potential of planning, such as that from the independent Raynsford Review, is urgently needed.


This blog is an extended and adapted version of an article which first appeared in The Conversation.

About the author: Ben Clifford is Associate Professor of Spatial Planning in the Bartlett School of Planning, UCL. A geographer-planner, he has research interests centred on the modernisation of the state, implementation of public sector reform, planning governance and policy, public engagement and the changing spaces of professionalism in an age of neoliberalising government. He has been involved on research relating to the implementation of planning reform in England, devolution and planning policy in the UK and Ireland, planning for nationally significant infrastructure, local authority housing delivery, permitted development and planning deregulation, and the private sector, outsourcing and the public interest in planning.

Suggested further reading

Colenutt, R. (2020). Knowledge and power in the politics of property development. Areahttps://doi.org/10.1111/area.12612

Ferm, J., Clifford, B., Canelas, P., & Livingstone, N. (2020). Emerging problematics of deregulating the urban: The case of permitted development in England. Urban Studieshttps://doi.org/10.1177/0042098020936966

Harris, E., & Nowicki, M. (2020). “GET SMALLER”? Emerging geographies of micro‐living. Area,https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12625

Haughton, G., & Allmendinger, P. (2016). Think tanks and the pressures for planning reform in England. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy https://doi.org/10.1177/0263774X16629677

Phelps, N. A., & Tewdwr‐Jones, M. (2008). If geography is anything, maybe it’s planning’s alter ego? Reflections on policy relevance in two disciplines concerned with place and space. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-5661.2008.00315.x

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