Beautiful Georgian chimneys at sunset, on Doughty Street, Bloomsbury

Great Changes Ahead

Planning reforms could fundamentally change the way we all engage with planning matters, and not necessarily for the better.

The planning reform white paper released earlier this week could significantly change the way the public engage with planning matters in WC1.

The paper places great emphasis on deregulation of the cumbersome and ‘outdated’ planning system, proposing a return to a zoning approach, as was employed before the 1947 planning act.

But the devil is in the detail. Many of the seemingly minor proposed changes could significantly change the way that we engage with planning matters, and not for the better.

The reforms propose three types of zone:

Growth’ (Lowest planning control)

The growth areas will be suitable for comprehensive redevelopment. Aimed at abandoned industrial sites and the like, the emphasis will be upon the local authority setting broad outlines for the type of development (e.g. use, height), and then outline planning permission will be automatically granted if proposals meet those criteria. It will then only remain to planners to liaise on the fine details of the development.

‘Renewal’ (Lower planning control)

These areas would be suitable for ‘densification’. It is not clear from the paper how exactly planning control will be relaxed, but it seems that certain types of applications (e.g. rooftop extensions) would be granted in principle, with details only remaining to be fixed by planners.

‘Protected’ (Normal, or higher planning control)

These areas, suitable for conservation areas, green belt, and the like would stay essentially the same as they are now. Planning applications would need to be made for all types of alterations, just as is the case throughout the country currently. There is however some talk of the importance of heritage, so we may see greater protection against poor development in these areas.

As almost all of Central London is within some conservation area or another, it is likely that we will all be living within a ‘protected’ zone. On the face of it, it seems as though Bloomsbury will be better off. The requirement for Camden to designate some areas for ‘renewal’ and ‘growth’ would likely see development pressures removed to other quarters, easing the pressure upon Central London.

Then again, there is no hint as to the granularity of these zones. In principle, there could be nothing against Camden designating small islands, even individual buildings as ‘Growth’ or ‘Renewal’.

But proposed changes to the method of public engagement with the planning system could fundamentally alter the role of local democracy in determining planning applications.

The white paper, following advice from the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission, wants to ‘make democracy happen earlier’, in order to improve public trust and engagement. The argument is that the formal public consultation period is not the best way to engage with planning, as it comes so late in the day that only very minor changes can be made in the face of public opposition.

So planning reforms want to shift the focus of public engagement to the plan-making stage, while ‘streamlining’ the opportunity to comment during public consultation. The paper argues that public opposition to an application during public consultation slows down the planning process, and is undemocratic as apparently, only a select few respond to these consultations, not necessarily near the development site.

It is inconceivable that this would be anything but a disaster for public trust. While only 2% trust developers and 7% local authorities on major development proposals, removing or suppressing the public consultation could push those figures to zero. The public consultation is the cornerstone of public engagement with planning matters.

And the idea that the general public would jump at the opportunity to engage with the plan-making process is utter folly. If only a ‘select few’ respond to public consultations, I’m not sure how to describe the number of people who would give a damn about planning policy. And why, after decades of communities being ignored on consultations for individual developments, would they believe their input would be heard on such wide-ranging documents as local plans? That is, if communities even understood the role of the local plan.

Attempting to suppress communities’ rights to respond to community matters, only to supply a once-in-a-decade opportunity to influence some obscure document, and all in the name of democracy is complete nonsense. Policy is for politicians, and people vote for politicians to implement policies. That’s just how democracy works.

Moving onto more positive ground, the white paper wants to place much greater planning weight upon beauty. Local authorities, in conjunction with communities, will need to come up with ‘design guides’ based upon the local vernacular of an area’s architecture. The general idea is that developments which adhere to these design guides should be beautiful, and beautiful developments will be fast-tracked through the planning system.

While the idea of a design guide holding weight is a good one, it’s hard to see the connection between a development being ‘beautiful’ and adhering to these design guides. A building doesn’t need to imitate local architectural form to be beautiful. One only needs to look at the contrast between St Pancras and King’s Cross Stations to comprehend that.

But nonetheless, the idea of community-backed design guides is a good one.

But the real question behind all this ‘beauty’ stuff is who exactly gets to decide what constitutes a ‘beautiful’ development. Residents? Planners? Architects? (God forbid) Councillors? The fundamental problem here is that not everyone agrees on what beautiful buildings are. Recent research shows that unsurprisingly, architects tend to find more modern and ‘iconic’ buildings beautiful, while the general public tend to prefer older, more traditional buildings.

In some sense, perception of beauty can be distorted by one’s own ideals.

The Building Better Building Beautiful Commission recommended basing the perception of beauty upon the local community’s views. This would be a welcome change, effectively democratising aesthetics and bringing it away from the elitist and scornful realm of modern architecture. But how community views on beauty could be given weight remains to be seen – it is difficult to set great statutory weight on such flimsy foundations.

One of the major changes concerns the role of planning obligations. Currently local authorities do all the work themselves in securing Section 106 agreements, with our beloved Camden becoming particularly adept at extracting enormous sums from developers. More recently the government introduced the Community Infrastructure Levy, a ‘tax’ on new floorspace, in an attempt to introduce greater certainty into how much developers can expect to pay.

An excellent article in the Guardian explored the strange underworld of Section 106 payments, viability arguments, and how developers can routinely wiggle their way out of paying anything at all to local authorities.

The government wants to fix all this, by setting a national ‘Infrastructure Levy’. This will be a value-based tax, set by the central government on all development exceeding a certain threshold. Say goodbye to Section 106 and possibly Camden’s funding strategy.

The effect of this change all depends upon how high that value-based tax ends up being, and how Camden reacts to that change. As Camden is particularly adept at extracting large sums of money (especially compared to the current CIL charges), it’s plausible that the new Infrastructure Levy will open up a hole in Camden’s funding. This could see Camden’s promise of ‘£1B invested in communities’ scrapped for good – or it could see an increased presumption on larger development. It’s too early to say.

Over the coming weeks and months, there will no doubt be great public scrutiny into the proposed changes, this article only scratching the surface. But there is at least hope in the ambition of this government to make positive change, with the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission report (which preceded this paper) being full of sensible and sound suggestions.

But the fundamental problem with planning in this country is not really that it is outdated, cumbersome, or bureaucratic. It is not even that it gives birth to ugly monstrosities, and it is certainly not that those innocent developers just trying to build homes must wait five years to have their applications granted. It is that it so routinely exemplifies the huge divide between communities and the local authority, and the inherent unfairness in profit dictating the evolution of neighbourhoods against the wishes of those who live there.

People should not have to contend with undue interference from government and external forces just for living in a certain area. The importance of this idea goes so far as to be included as Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998. But the effect of local authorities encouraging overdevelopment, botching public consultations, and ignoring community views directly infringes on that right. Why should someone simply living peacefully in their home have to contend with some developer wanting to build up an extension a metre from their window? Why should they have to read up on planning law, the planning system, respond to consultations, partake in endless bureaucracy, and even launch legal challenges just to ensure quiet enjoyment of their homes?

Or why should the protection of internationally important historic buildings fall ultimately to local groups like the BCAAC, while developers and planners are continually scurrying around trying to manipulate the system in order to have them demolished and defaced, in the name of profit and career?

Or why should local authorities have the power to raise millions through development affecting one community, only for that community to have absolutely no say in the spending of that money?

All of these are gross injustices arising directly from the current planning system. The government harks on about delivering on the priorities of the British people. If that is so, rather than focus on shaving off a year or two on developers’ project timelines, they should seek to address these injustices and let local communities ‘take back control’ of their neighbourhoods.

One thought on “Great Changes Ahead

  1. It will be a disaster for public and social housing

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