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The ‘Planning White Paper’ and a basis for possible reform

The Government’s Planning White Paper proposes to replace the current regime of local authority determination of specific development proposals by a system of zoning.

Local Plans would define three zones: growth zone (where designated sites have “outline permission”), renewal zone (statutory presumption in favour of development being granted for the uses specified as being suitable), Protected zone (“more stringent development controls”). There is an option to combine growth and renewal areas.

For growth and renewal zones plans would “set out suitable development uses, as well as limitations on height and/or density as relevant. These could be specified for sub-areas” (eg town centres).

For protected areas, plans “would explain what is permissible by cross-reference to the National Planning Policy Framework”.

Development Management policies would be set by National Planning Policy Framework (with an option to have limited development management policies in local plans), plus local design code(s) supported by national design code. There is a national design guide and manual for streets (where there is no local design code, the national one would be applied).

How zoning works in the US

Traditional zoning involves local municipal zones for locales with zoning ordinances (ordinance is a municipal by-law).  These can be by land use and sub-categories within land use – ie different housing types ( single detached dwellings/apartments) or by density (low/medium/high).

There are a number of important variations:

a) Inclusive zoning (includes affordable housing)
b) Incentivised zoning (allows higher density development in exchange for higher local taxation)
c) Form based zoning (new urbanist approach – design based rather than directly land use/functional based)
d) Performance zoning ( based on environmental impacts)
e) PUDs (Planned Urban Development) Zoning sets parameters but individual schemes negotiated between developer and municipality

The Planning White Paper is however unclear on what form of zoning would apply in England.

Current  planning practice in England

Local plans (district/borough wide) allocate development sites  and/ or for specific uses and set both specific policies for designated sites and more general policies for non-designated ones. Local plans set policy requirements to supplement national planning policy requirements and/or facilitate their implementation locally. 

These can set density policies and housing type requirements for different sub-areas or for individual sites. Area Action Plans/ Area Supplementary planning guidance can be determined for development/ redevelopment areas. These can be supplemented by design guidance/ design code, by masterplans (for major sites) and site briefs. Local Development Orders can set specific policy requirements for areas within a local plan area.

UK Land use allocations can be considered to be a form of zoning (though the term not widely used) though not all Local Plans allocate specific land uses to sites and development can still be considered on non-allocated sites. Land use allocations may also not be strictly applied and although in theory we have a plan-led system, alternative uses may be permitted.

Local Plans however set parameters within which individual development allocations should be considered.  This system is comparable with the US PUD system which is also a two-stage system. The distinction between American system as ‘zonal’ and the English system as ‘discretionary’ is a gross over-simplification.

In England, Section 106 planning contributions (s106) can be negotiated on site by site basis in exchange for increased density and Community Infrastructure Levy can be varied by sub area (both in practice similar to US incentivised zoning system).  Affordable housing requirements set in local plan policy, which can vary by area, are parallel to US inclusive zoning approach.

The Planning White Paper would appear to propose a very simplified broad-brush approach to zoning – simplified when compared to the traditional US approach to zoning, which allows much more specific zoning categories.

The key question is whether the proposed English approach to zoning will allow for any of the variable approaches operated in US cities (where zoning is determined by the municipal authority), which are in effect deliverable in practice within the pre-existing English planning regime.

A basis for possible reform

The current planning system and planning practice in England does need reforming. (As planning is a devolved function,  the White Paper proposals do not apply to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland). There is a case for Local Plans being much more specific about permissible land uses on specific sites and the specific requirements which would then apply.

This would certainly increase certainty for both developers and local residents. It would also ensure land values reflect permissible uses. However, local authorities, at both officer and member level, need to have the power to ensure that development proposals are fully compliant both with the land use allocations in the published plan and with the policy requirements set out in the plan.

This means that a LA development management function is still required. This will include any decisions as to community mitigation and benefit through a form of scheme specific planning obligations regime, which would, where appropriate, be additional to any value-based form of infrastructure levy.

Objectors should not however be able to block schemes which are fully compliant with the published Local Plan in terms of land use and policy requirements. Moreover, applicants should not be able to appeal against LA planning decisions which are supported by a published Local Plan.

However,  local plan making must be set within a wider strategic context, as many local authorities cannot meet their housing needs within their own area, while other authorities may  resist  helping out neighbouring authorities within their travel to work area. 

The Planning White Paper is largely silent on this critical issue, and in fact proposes to abolish the current ‘duty to co-operate’ with neighbouring authorities and the requirement to produce statements of common ground. 

It is necessary that we re-establish a framework of national and regional planning which links national funding of infrastructure to decisions about the locations most appropriate for both residential and employment growth.

Neighbouring authorities should be required to agree a strategic plan within this national and regional framework. No local council should be allowed to opt out of making a contribution to meeting an area’s housing and employment needs.

Localism on its own is not enough and we need a balance of powers between the different spatial levels of governance and democratic accountability.

<span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color"><strong>Duncan Bowie</strong></span>
Duncan Bowie

Duncan Bowie is a semi-retired academic and strategic planner who has written a number of books on housing and planning.

He is a long-term member of the Labour Housing Group.

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Why solving the housing crisis requires planning reform

The UK has entered and will leave this pandemic while experiencing a decades-long housing shortage. The country will soon begin to repair the harm done to the economy and society by this disease, but it cannot continue to afford this housing crisis. The inequality it fuels and the damage it causes to national and local economies are too great to bear. We cannot go back to how things were before.

At its core, ending the housing shortage requires more homes. But where new homes are built matters. Yet at present, not enough houses are built in some cities, and arguably too many are built in others. This mismatch emerges as the design of the planning system means it rations the supply of land available for new homes. Ending the housing crisis will therefore require reform of the green belt and a new, flexible zoning planning system to build enough new homes.

The housing crisis is local, not national

The reason why the planning system is so important can be found in the geography of the housing shortage. Some cities have far greater affordability problems than others. For example, while in 2019 the average house in Barnsley cost 5.3 times the local average income, in Brighton that ratio rose to 13.5 times local average incomes. Despite their higher average wages, prosperous cities such as York and Bristol are generally less affordable than places with struggling economies and lower wages such as Dundee or Blackpool.

So solving the housing crisis therefore requires a focus on the most expensive cities with the worst affordability problems. But currently, as Fig. 1 below shows, there is no link between cities’ demand for housing and their supply of new homes. Many expensive cities including Oxford and Bournemouth are building far fewer homes than those which are more affordable such as Wakefield or Telford. The supply and demand of new homes have been disconnected.

Source: EPC Domestic Register 2019; Census 2011; ONS, Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) 2011; Land Registry, Price Paid Data 2011

The planning system disconnects local housing supply from local demand

This decoupling of supply from demand originates in the planning system, as the amount of land it makes available for housing is rationed. Development of new homes normally cannot proceed unless the council decides at their discretion to grant a planning permission to a site. Measures such as the green belt block new homes across large areas of land adjacent to many cities and railway stations, including Bristol, Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham, and London.

The rationing of land, not prices or affordability or need, ultimately decides how many houses cities build. It explains why some cities which have low demand build more than the average city, and far more than some very unaffordable cities.

The planning system prevents redevelopment in large parts of the existing suburbs

The planning system’s rationing of land can be seen in how it warps the supply of new homes within cities. Consider Exeter, an expensive city which is building lots of new homes above the average rate for cities, in Fig.2 below. A substantial number of homes have been built in the city centre (8 per cent growth since 2011), and there is a cluster of new homes being built on the eastern outskirts of the city, including near the brand new railway station of Newcourt.

Fig. 2 Housing supply in Exeter from 2011-2019

Source: EPC Domestic Register 2019; Census 2011

Nevertheless, 48 per cent of suburban neighbourhoods in Exeter are building less than one house a year. 14 per cent of suburban neighbourhoods in Exeter have actually built no new houses over this period, including a built-up area close to Digby & Sowton station. Even though Exeter has built lots of new houses, the amount of land which has been made available for development has still been subject to rationing.

These dormant suburbs which make little or no contribution to new housing supply are not unique to Exeter. 51 per cent of all suburban neighbourhoods in England and Wales built less than one house a year, or zero, from 2011-2019, providing only 2 per cent of all new suburban homes over that period.

This national pattern across cities emerges from the design of the planning system. As the supply of new homes is controlled by the discretionary granting of planning permissions by elected councillors, it is both uncertain for developers to navigate and sensitive to political pressure from anti-housing activists. The result is that as so much of the suburbs and unremarkable green belt land are off-limits to new homes, new housing supply is forced into easy-to-develop pockets on the outskirts of cities, and pressure for redevelopment is put on city centres and locations such as social housing estates and offices into flats.

Local shortages which emerge from the planning system make inequality worse within and between cities

By stunting the supply of housing in expensive cities, the planning system creates two different inequalities.

First, it drives inequality in housing costs within prosperous cities between renters and homeowners. As rents rise due to the shortage of homes, so does the wealth of homeowning neighbours as through their housing equity.

Second, it drives inequality in housing wealth between homeowners in more prosperous and weaker economies. From 2013-18, average housing equity per house in Brighton rose by £83,000 – but in Doncaster it rose by just £5,000. By preventing new homes from being built in the most expensive cities to stabilise local prices, the planning system reinforces economic inequality in them and across the country.

Ending the housing crisis requires a new flexible zoning system for planning

Solving the housing crisis and tackling these issues requires reconnecting local supply to local demand, and that entails reform of the planning system. Green belt reform is one area where this is needed, and Centre for Cities have calculated that 1.7 to 2.1 million new homes could be built on less than 2 per cent of the green belt within walking distance of railway stations outside Bristol, Newcastle, Birmingham, Manchester and London.

More building by councils and housing associations can play a large role here. However, the root cause of the housing crisis lies not in a specific lack of social housing but in the institutional design of the planning system. For instance, England still has one of the largest social housing sectors in Europe, at 17 per cent of all housing stock, yet it also has one of the continent’s most dire housing crises.

Ultimately, the design of the planning system must change. Building more homes in the most expensive cities will require a shift from its discretionary model towards a flexible zoning system, as in Japan and certain US cities.

This approach, where planning permission legally must be granted if a proposal complies with a national zoning code and national building regulations to ensure the structures are safe, is compatible with more social and council housing. But it would fix the institutional problems the private sector faces by reconnecting local supply to local demand, and end the housing crisis by building more homes in the least affordable places with the greatest need.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Anthony Breach</span></strong>
Anthony Breach

Anthony is an Analyst who has worked as part of the research team at Centre for Cities since 2017, where he focuses on housing and planning. He won the Thinkhouse Early Career Researcher Prize 2019 for Capital cities: How the planning system creates housing shortages and drives wealth inequality.

Anthony has also worked on research on commercial property in cities, services exports, productivity, and manufacturing. He also has a particular interest in lessons for planning, housing, and UK cities from Japan and the countries of the former Soviet Union. Previously he worked at the Fawcett Society as a Research Officer.