Mixed reviews for long-awaited planning reforms

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has published a white paper outlining proposed changes to England’s planning system, including slashing delivery targets and scrapping section 106 contributions to bring forward 300,000 new homes each year. 

Under the proposals, planners, architects and developers would formulate scheme proposals based on more specific predetermined criteria, including height and massing, for particular sites in what is being termed a shift to a “zonal planning system”. Certain types of development in these “zones” would be able to go forward without requiring formal planning permission.

Jenrick said the reforms would “cut red tape” while maintaining building standards, and added that local democracy would be “at the heart of the process”. 

The reforms include: 

  • scrapping section 106 agreements and replacing them with a new ‘levy’
  • designating land according to three categories – growth, renewal and protection 
  • a greater emphasis on brownfield development – and designated Green Belt will be protected 
  • stricter rules to ensure every council has a local plan in place 
  • creating a fast-track system for “beautiful buildings”  
  • establishing local design guidance for developers  
  • ensuring that all new homes are developed to net-zero standards 
  • creating a First Homes scheme, which would offer newly-built homes for sale at a 30% discount for local people, key workers and first-time buyers. 
FCH Malaysia

FCH designed the headquarters for developer Shapadu Group in Malaysia

The response to the changes, put forward in a Government white paper entitled Planning for the Future, has been largely positive. 

Industry professionals from the region welcomed the reforms, saying they could streamline the planning process without creating a development free-for-all. 

The ‘Malaysian model’

Adam Hall, director of Liverpool-based architect Falconer Chester Hall, said the reforms – especially the proposals for predetermining criteria for and characteristics of developments – could create a system similar to that in Malaysia. 

Hall has first-hand experience of the Malaysian planning system and said the changes in England could drastically reduce the time it takes to get a project off the ground. 

In Malaysia, where Falconer Chester Hall designed a headquarters for developer Shapadu Group, the process was “dreamlike”, Hall said. 

At Hall’s first meeting there, he was told what was expected in terms of height, building footprint, car parking spaces and acoustics and thermal requirements. 

“You come away from that meeting with a good idea of how you can design the building so the time you put into the design work is more focused because issues of height, use and density have already been decided. 

“You don’t waste time going back and forward. It really streamlines the process,” he said. 

Robert Jenrick 960x640

Jenrick criticised the current planning system and said the reforms were radical and necessary

Switching systems 

However, Hall warned that a similar system in England could present problems for planning authorities in the short term. 

“The authorities won’t be ready for this. They won’t have done the preparatory work so they will have some work to do,” he said. 

The ease of transition from the old system to the new was the main source of concern among other property professionals. 

Victoria Hills, chief executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute, said Government now had to work “hand-in-hand” with the planning profession to implement the changes. 

Melanie Leech, chief executive of the British Property Federation, said the reforms would “frontload the system, with more pressure on local authorities to provide leadership, vision and context for investors, developers and their communities.” 

And Matthew Spry, senior director of planning consultancy Lichfields, said it was important to “avoid a hiatus while we move from system A to system B”, and that the transition could take several years. 

Potential problems

The existing planning system is often criticised for being slow-moving and overly bureaucratic and the majority of commentators conceded that reform was long overdue.  

Paul Smith, managing director of Salford-based land agency the Strategic Land Group, said the reforms laid out in the white paper “correctly diagnose many of the issues facing the planning system”. 

However, Smith criticised the lack of ambition in terms of reviewing Green Belt – “the single biggest obstacle to properly planning our towns and cities” – and urged the Government to face up to the challenges this presents. 

Meanwhile, critics of the proposals include homelessness charity Shelter, which is concerned that scrapping section 106 agreements – the means by which developers make contributions towards affordable housing and education – could reduce the provision of affordable homes.  

Under Jenrick’s proposals, S106 agreements and the community infrastructure levy would be replaced by a new Infrastructure Levy, which would be set at a fixed proportion of the value of the development. 

S106 agreements are usually negotiated by the developer and the planning authority, and replacing them with a fixed levy could have a detrimental impact on affordable housing delivery, according to Andrew Bickerdike, director of Manchester-based consultancy Turley. 

Leon Armstrong, director of consultancy Mosaic Planning, said he was sceptical about the Government’s target of 300,000 new homes a year. 

“If the new approach to zoning is to be a success then it must seek a satisfactory balance between prioritising brownfield land and enabling the delivery of high-quality housing where people want to live,” Armstrong said. 

Richard Shepherd, director of Nexus Planning’s Manchester office, said the proposals were weighted too heavily in favour of housing delivery and were “exceptionally light” in respect of the potential implications of proposed changes on retail and town centre development.  

However, Jenrick said the existing system had been “a barrier” to building homes and that the seven years it takes to formulate local plans is far too long. 

He added: “These reforms will lay the foundations for a brighter future, providing more homes for young people and creating better quality neighbourhoods and homes across the country.” 

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