Councillor Steve Mckenna’s Response to Planning for the Future White Paper

RESPONSE TO PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE WHITE PAPER

Introduction

The planning system is often misunderstood but it has made an enormous positive impact since its creation in 1947. From a Green perspective it has protected countryside and key heritage assets but its not simply a story about preservation. The planning system has helped build communities, deliver homes and jobs and is a key component of local democratic decision making.

Sadly this White Paper makes assumptions that are simply wrong  and accuses the planning system as being the disease not the cure, blaming it for failings such as the lack of delivery of new homes. In reality if the issue is one of delivery then the White Paper should have focussed upon giving Local Planning Authorities incentives and resources to carry out steps that would help delivery such as through commissioning, see below.

The Need to Avoid a Wrong Turn

Whilst there will be a need to stimulate the economy during and after the pandemic, the old traditional reflationary options of using the construction industry multiplier effect may not work. Rushing to a market led Build Build Build approach could be like reinventing the property market after the credit crunch, creating assets that are still unaffordable, in the wrong locations and missing out on the opportunity to rebuild a greener more balanced national economy. One consequence of doing things differently may well be an easing of the housing crisis and this should include building of more socially rented and affordable homes. If undertaken the countryside might not be at risk of unnecessary swathes of urbanisation.

The focus on creating beautiful urban environments is welcome. Creating high quality well designed places with green infrastructure (rather than throwing up bland housing estates) are essential to creating viable communities, with a mix of housing types as well as locally based jobs. However it will be easier to deliver these places if Local Authorities can acquire land, masterplan it eg with green space, service the plots and offer to housebuilders in sufficient parcels to ensure there is good deliverability rather than waiting for the market  to build it, which is often at a slower pace as developers land bank and release plots slowly to keep prices high. Its worth noting half of the homes built in the mid -1950s were council housing and this made an enormous contribution to alleviating the housing shortages of post war Britain.

This is therefore a radical and far reaching document which unfortunately takes the wrong approach and indeed makes the wrong assumptions about what is actually wrong with the system, failing to look properly at the evidence and to understand  the reasons for failed delivery of housing which is much more about the market failing to deliver than the planning system failing to allocate land for housing. There are thousands of homes waiting to be built under unimplemented planning permissions but housebuilders don’t want to build until it suits their needs. The shortage of affordable homes being built is a national disgrace and its surely no surprise that house prices have sky rocketed since council house building effectively ceased 30 years ago. But the housebuilders are not interested in meeting needs so they continue to build housing estates rather than high quality places. Four bedroomed detached homes do not meet the needs of the many.

 

Furthermore the White Paper is a missed opportunity to address climate change, rebuild ecosystems and to bring forward proven solutions. It does not take the opportunity to reconnect planning with public health which is essential in the modern age – mental health is increasingly impacting the NHS and the role of green infrastructure in combatting these issues has not been considered here.

 

It seeks simple answers without understanding the complexity of the problems. It is not based on the evidence available and is entirely lacking in the detail in key areas.

 

The key changes proposed in this over-centralised approach will damage local democracy and take away local control. It will dismantle the Local Plans system and whilst there is merit in enabling local areas to build distinctive approaches to their local problems the White Paper undermines this by using national standards instead.

Commentary on Key Issues

Some of the key issues are set out below as follows :

  • Much of the proposed reform will undermine local democracy and local decision making such as setting many development management policies nationally; by speeding up or streamlining processes eg auto permissions in growth areas.
  • Sustainability and environmental impact would be watered down and climate change seems to be ignored in a headlong rush to build homes. No evidence as to how we will achieve zero carbon. The replacement system of environmental assessments is deeply concerning, as there is no detail or even sense of importance about making these work better.  A clear straightforward means of assessment that assesses carbon impact, constraints including flooding and air quality issues is needed.
  • With public health being a major concern and key to place making this should be considered under green infrastructure and connecting people to nature in the urban areas.
  • Wildlife and bio diversity needs to be essential in the mix and given much higher level of consideration formally in the decision making system.. Whilst the commitment to Biodiversity net gain is welcomed, we need to go much further, acknowledging the need for policy to address our biodiversity emergency, and catastrophic species loss in which land use – and loss – plays a crucial role. Infrastructure such as national projects should also be included in this and key natural capital asses should be credited and losses avoided The  metrics for Biodiversity net gain need to ensure we fully recognise the importance of no loss of a particular species loss or a long-established habitat such as ancient woodlands or wetlands  in assessment of areas for development (not just assuming that for example an ancient woodland cannot simply be ‘replaced’ elsewhere).
  • In reality the delivery of homes is the market’s responsibility and at present developers are more keen to land bank and release sites when they want to. There are many unimplemented planning permissions.
  • The simplification of Local Plans represents a dismantling of the system and its replacement by zoning which is to be based on three categories – protected areas, renewal and growth- far too simplistic. Large swathes of land could be designated as growth areas creating massive infrastructure and environmental impacts and undermining green belts and other designations. Watering down the assessments of viability in the new Local Plans is unlikely to benefit developers as they might even more easily avoid their obligations such as affordable housing provision. Planners need these skills of development appraisal presently but these are not mentioned in the White Paper. Watering down environmental assessments does not seem sensible especially if there are to be large growth zones where auto permissions are granted.
  • There needs to be a focus on delivery of affordable housing. The viability issues that allow developers to avoid policy obligations (high land prices in advance of planning set it up to fail) are not resolved and so affordable housing provision will shrink.
  • The Levy will be beneficial if it removes the scope for developers to negotiate away policy obligations.
  • In any event if national measures, standards and policies are to be introduced the housing problem can be reduced by addressing the population decline in the North and investing there.

S McKenna (Cllr) on behalf of East Surrey Green Party

29/10/2020

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