The Planning Bill: Will it unblock the affordability crisis?

By Ananya Banerjee, head of design at Boyer Planning

The government has summarised its answer to renovate the planning system in the now much controversial Planning Bill – proposed reforms put forward in last year’s Planning White Paper that featured front and centre in the Queen’s Speech in May.

Among its many changes, is an approach to zoning, the de-regulation of planning with a view to building more homes, removing un-necessary blockages and increasing home affordability amongst young people. But what are the implications of such a radical change to the UK planning system and what can be done to ensure the new bill is a success and leads to more affordable housing for young people?

Learn from your neighbour: Before we get into the potential pitfalls or benefits of the new zoning policies, let’s look at what our continental neighbours are doing. In Europe, a number of other countries have been using a zoning system for decades, including the Netherlands.

The Dutch model is a successful example of systematic planning built on a foundation of zoning where focus is on enhancing the environment, placemaking and build quality. Local authorities are given a much bigger role in assembling land and strategic planning, which provides for certainty in the process and greater fluidity in the construction of new homes.

I highlight this example because it is representative of what a best-case scenario could look like if the Planning Bill is implemented well. However, I acknowledge England is a different country and this would need to work for us.

The controversial Planning Bill: As a practitioner for over 15 years, I am equal parts optimistic and cautious about the new zoning rollout. As with any root and branch change of a complex process, there are bound to be teething problems. But how can we fix those instead of scrapping the bill?

The planning system is broken. Housing delivery is slower than anticipated and home ownership amongst young people is at its record low, which is disgraceful for us as practitioners and as a nation. However, if we are committed to resolving this blockage, the first issue we need to resolve is to delineate between the positive forces of localism and the negative forces of ‘politicised planning’.

De-politicising planning: There is a concern around changing attitudes towards planning that might aid the success of the new system. Localism is a positive force in improving and shaping our community but when used constructively. The question being asked is – will zoning take that part of the process away? How can local community still have a voice on how their own neighbourhood works? I remain curious as to how the Planning Bill will clarify this mixed message and set out a clear direction.

There is a recognised mismatch between national and local policy making. At a national and local level planning is heavily politicised and it is now time for the profession to stop this and spread awareness.

We need to collectively recognise the record low in home ownership amongst young people. As a national community who takes great pride in how and where we live, we now need to work together and take collective responsibility for addressing this affordability crisis.

There is also the issue of perception. Currently, developers have a bad reputation amongst the public, seen as faceless organisations who are trying to remove local green spaces and cause harm to the environment by developing on the much debated Greenbelt. But we all know that is there much more to it than just soundbites. The majority of developers are trying to do their part to solve the housing crisis and this needs to be highlighted to prevent an ‘us vs them’ approach and work collaboratively. Working in partnership will always be positive and help to differentiate positive local participation from local negative influences.

The talked about target: As per the new bill, all local planning authorities (LPAs) will need to have their Local Plan in place that will demonstrate how they intend to meet their localised housing target over the next 15 years. However, I question how zoning is the answer to this. We would also need to look at a sequenced and monitored approach to delivering truly affordable homes for young people in order to resolve the current crisis. Is First Homes the answer and will it be sustainable? How will the bill deliver on its promises here?

The Environment Bill hand in hand: As the government’s approach focuses on planning de-regulation, it will also need to stay focussed on its other promised obligations, namely, biodiversity enhancements and climate change proposed through the parallel Environment Bill. As a practitioner, I see two waves of thought. On one hand, some LPAs have grasped the challenges of climate change along with biodiversity net gain and are participating constructively in the process to bring about positive change. On the other hand, others are way behind in the race and still politicising change as a negative force.

Through the next decade, as we work to our national ambition of net zero by 2050, we will see a host of legislative changes including Future Homes, decommissioning of gas, grid decarbonisation, electricity becoming the cleanest fuel and changes to our lifestyle to reduce carbon footprint. Covid has shown this is possible.

There is no doubt that the current institutional post war approach to planning is archaic in many ways, so change at such a crucial time is welcome from many in the industry. Time will tell if the zoning approach will bring the positive change the Planning Bill hopes for. However, the crisis remains and we need to get to work to resolve it instead of living in political soundbites.

Zoning is the biggest housing reform in decades and is undoubtedly going to change things. Its far-reaching implications are set to affect everything in the planning, building and development sector, including how:

• We increase home ownership for young people
• People will retain a voice and shape their local community
• House builders and SMEs rise to the challenge of adopting the new
• Public private partnerships thrive
• Local authorities adapt to numerous changes
• Preciously we use land and think innovatively to embrace new technology

It is the government’s job firstly to set a clear message, educate, spread awareness and think of a bottom-up approach. It is our job to act responsibly and bring change in a positive and constructive manner thinking of everyone, not just about our own needs. As a national community, it is time to understand and get on-board with this positive wave.

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