Planning reform, de-regulation, and a place for design?

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By Hannah Hickman…

In SPE’s last blog, ‘More haste, less speed’, Adam Sheppard wrote compellingly about the perils of this Government’s drive to create a laissez-faire neo-liberal planning system. This piece follows on from that to offer further commentary on impending reform, this time to linked to some of our current research on planning and design quality.

The Financial Times[1], amongst other press reports, has intimated that Ministers are preparing for a ‘major overhaul of the planning system’ which would speed up the approval process for new developments in a bid to reboot the economy following the COVID-19 crisis.  Whilst the details are scant, the rumours are about the possible replacement of the discretionary system with a zoning system and the use of special development zones. With the Prime Minster having recently launched ‘Project Speed to scythe through red tape and get things done’[2], the narrative is about further de-regulation, aimed at addressing the ‘appalling planning system’[3] .

The phrases ‘major overhaul’ and ‘planning system’ now seem almost un-separable. There have been repeated attempts to reform the planning system, the most major of which was in 2010 with the complete abolition of the regional strategic tier within the English planning system. Successive governments of differing political colours have tended towards a market-led view which characterises planning as a regulatory function focused on managing the negative consequences of development, rather than a more positive, place shaping, enabling tool. As the RTPI has recently stated, “with this narrow perception, it becomes possible to see planning as a barrier to growth which can be temporarily scaled back during times of crisis” (2020, 4).

Here, at UWE a team is half-way through an important research study for the four West of England Authorities about achieving high quality design outcomes in major housing developments. This study is focused specifically on post-planning consent, and the mechanisms that local authorities have at their disposal to ensure no denigration in housing quality between consent and delivery.  In our research to date, we have found officers across all four authorities committed to providing housing to meet the ever-growing need and improving the quality of places for residents. Yet they find themselves operating in a system which has been so pruned of powers and resources that they feel increasingly unable to control the quality of development, focusing more on the immediate pressure to deliver ‘units’ rather than create places.

Of course it is right that as the impact of Covid-19 unfolds, innumerate and important questions should be raised about the way in which planning can and should contribute to response and recovery, and this includes its role in supporting the economy.

What is more questionable, however, is the extent to which Covid-19 may well become the justification for whatever reality in the form of concrete proposals emerges from the rumours, thereby inhibiting important debate about what planning is for, and how it should be best configured and resourced to achieve its purpose at this time.  One thing most people will have experienced much more over the last three months is time at home. Surely there should be scope to reflect on how emerging homes can be developed in ways which are more than fit for habitation- and done in a way which aims to mitigate climate change. To do so is to be collectively prepared for the next crisis, rather than wilfully naïve in the hope that simply, blindly, fuelling the economy will just make it all right.

One of the more promising things to emerge from this Government prior to lockdown had been to reinforce the role of the planning system in achieving high quality design outcomes, as reflected in its revisions to the National Planning Practice Guidance on design and a new National Design Guide, illustrating “how well-designed places that are beautiful, enduring and successful can be achieved in practice” (MHCLG, 1).

We are concerned that once again focusing debate on de-regulation to speed up the economy, this recent progress to re-energise planning’s role in supporting design may be denuded at a time when it is needed more not less. We already see the major housebuilders calling for greater freedoms and flexibilities, and ‘major policy changes’[4], and a shift in the narrative back to ‘build, build, build’, rather than homes and places[5]

Challender Court Henbury
Source: Bristol City Council (2018). Bristol City Council housing development wins two prestigious awards. (last accessed 8th July 2020)

Whilst there is still much speculation, in any ensuing debate about further reforms, what must be avoided is the pursuit of high-quality design being seen as a regulatory burden that can be chipped away at, avoided even, rather than a reasonable expectation or fundamental necessity, that planning (in whatever form) must promote.  Fine words about ‘building beautiful’[6] or the values of good architecture are worse than useless if they are not backed up with the sorts of tools and policies which practising planners can use to ensure this level of quality is brought about. As our research is exploring, the powers planning authorities do or do not have, really affect what is delivered. And what is delivered will be the homes for our children and our grandchildren; places for lives to be lived, families to be forged not just units on a spreadsheet.

This role for planning is critical, starting with a vision for and expectations about the types of places and spaces we want to achieve, right through to collaborating with developers to ensure that high quality outcomes are achieved in practice. This is what recovery should look like: resilience and togetherness, working out how things can become better.







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