Letter from London
Paul Finch, 21 June 2021
Constructive planning reform should be welcomed
After years of criticism and endless reform, the UK government seems to have got the message that if you want a high-quality, proactive planning system, you need to pay for it, writes Paul Finch. Whether the general public sees it this way, particularly if development is on the doorstep, is another matter.
The recent announcement of a £500 million funding boost to help get the right staff in the right places was of course welcomed by the Royal Town Planning Institute, with reason. Under the latest planning thinking from government, local plans will need to show areas that broadly should be protected from significant development, areas where enhancement is welcome, and areas where development should be encouraged and located. That will involve a major effort, not least in respect of local consultations up and down the land. Intellectual firepower will be required, and professionals who are interested in the future rather than simply operating development-control rules in a negative way.
Needless to say, built environment professions in general criticize anything this government proposes, without offering much in the way of constructive suggestions about how we address the housing shortage or apply broad-brush environmental principles in practice.
Whatever initiatives Whitehall proposes have to be shot down. Permitted development rights are anathema, even though they will now include requirements in respect of minimum space and light standards. Much of the housing recently built was of such poor design that it should never have been given permission, it is said. Converting redundant offices into homes will ‘rip the heart out of communities’ (no it won’t). VAT rules should be reversed so that virtue-signalling retrofits are zero-rated while evil new development – particularly if it involves a scintilla of concrete – should attract a penal rate. And so on.
Happily, there are some cool and wise heads in place to hold our current problems and opportunities in some sort of balance, not least the government’s new-ish chief planner, Joanna Averley, who was a very effective director at the Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment (CABE) where she promoted regeneration at scale, and also produced a pretty timeless guide for clients on how to get good buildings.
It will be interesting to see how she responds to criticisms of the planning White Paper from MPs on the housing select committee - and party members shaken by the recent by-election defeat attributed in part to dislike of the allegedly reduced role of local people in planning decisions. The MP's are worried about suggestions that proposals demonstrating ‘beauty’ will be fast-tracked through the system. I agree with these criticisms, not least because of the difficulty in defining ‘beauty’ in terms that make any sense within the complex ecosystem of planning law. Also because premiating aesthetics over everything else is asking for trouble. Why can’t the fast track be used in respect of, say, demonstrably design quality? This is not very difficult to define, and indeed CABE did it.
I don’t think I would go as far as the RIBA (or at least its representative who gave evidence to MPs), in suggesting that aesthetics are the least important consideration and will derive as if by magic from other design decisions. It is surely the synthesis of commodity, firmness and delight which is what makes architecture so important, not a grading hierarchy based on tick-box mantras which are an enemy of design and a boon for development control freaks.
There must be a case for moving as many of the numbers elements in planning applications to building control, ceasing the pretence that planners are educated or equipped to deal with many of the technical issues for which currently they have responsibility. Such an approach would chime with the general move towards a placemaking-based reappraisal of what planning is supposed to achieve – to propose and define rather than simply reacting. This would increase certainty of outcome, reducing the biggest financial risk for planning applicants, and therefore allow a greater focus on the quality of what is proposed rather than whether it is in the right place. This is what the new planning landscape is intended to achieve, and it should be supported.
However, the government needs to understand that if planning simply becomes a political weapon, where the well-off need never fear that their neighbourhood will be despoiled by new construction, while new density levels are imposed on already under-pressure communities, it will be a failure – you might say an example of ‘spatial prejudice’.
Drawing up maps for development, enhancement and protection will revive zoning, but it needs to take place in 21st century context, where pockets of development could take place within generally protected areas, and protected pockets identified within development zones.
In short, we need smarter planning for smarter cities, and the necessary personnel to bring it about. No doubt consultants will have a big role, but there needs to be a real sense of direction delivered by chief planning officers across the country. It may be bumpy, but the ride needs undertaking.
As for the voters who have given the Conservatives a bloody nose, they appear to be more worried about the HS2 rail line running through their patch than the fine details of the planning White Paper, However, the cynical and hypocritical Lib Dems, who nationally support the rail project, have made the most of local objections to pretend that they too are opposed to it. Mendacity is part of their very limited charm.