Planning for the Future – a hopeful new beginning

The government recently released a white paper calling for a total re-orientation of the UK planning system – Planning for the Future (PFF).  Large chunks came straight out of the report of the excellent Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which I have summarised elsewhere in this blog (see: BBBBC).  

Nicholas Boys Smith – not an architect or planner – largely wrote BBBBC.  Before that he had a career in and out of the civil service and then founded the consultancy Create Streets because of his discontent with what is being done to UK cities by architects and developers and by the planning system.  His complaints:

  • The UK has some of the ugliest cities in Europe.  They are also being remorselessly high rised, though there is strong evidence that ordinary people prefer more traditional building forms.
  • The UK also has an extraordinarily clunky, opaque, and slow planning system, which frustrates ordinary people, and which commands almost no public support (Grosvenor report). It has been tinkered with endlessly and nothing seems to improve it. 
  • And the UK has a housing crisis.
  • These elements, to his mind, are connected.

At the core of Boys Smith’s vision is a move towards local democratic plan-making, and towards code-based plans, i.e., plans which set outline conditions for developers to meet. If they are willing to meet these democractically-decided outline conditions, developers should be able to build without the need to write 200 page proposals and go to planning committee. This sort of code-based system, universal on continental Europe, will speed things up and produce more houses, make the process easier for small builders, and enable decision-making to be handed back to the people, who will be able to decide what sort of towns they want. Both of these ideas are stamped all over PFF and repeated many times. 

People want development, he believes, and (despite developers’ accusations) are not generally NIMBYs.  But they want good development.  BBBBC and Create Streets want the planning system to reflect less of what architects and developers want for us, and more of what we want for ourselves. 

We should bear this background in mind when reflecting on the shrieks of outrage at PFF’s message from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Boys Smith’s report was (if anything) anti-architect and anti-developer, but for ordinary people.

Ironically PFF then landed in the lap of a populist Conservative government and a minister with a dodgy reputation.

So is this a neoliberal power-grab?

There is evidence of something of a “car crash” between BBBBC’s urbanistic vision, and the developer interests which had the ear of Secretary of State Robert Jenrick.  The recent government expansion by diktat of the permitted development scheme is an example of this schizophrenia, with government overriding local democratic planning  (TCPA – Is this the end for democratic planning?).  It is hard yet to judge because PFF is more a green paper than a white paper and is still unclear on essentials. 

Yet PFF embodies that same vision as BBBBC, in the same words: it argues that moving to a democratically-influenced code-based system can reduce the time from project conception to build-out, reduce planning risk, reduce costs and so help smaller builders participate and help more houses get built, and place community input much earlier, where it has a chance to make a difference, thus hopefully improving outcomes (i.e. give us more beauty). 

It also shifts power away from current power-holders, viz from our councillors to “best in class consultation” – no local plan to be accepted unless evidence is provided that this has truly taken place.  

Yet some elements not in BBBBC have caused special concern:

  • The call for local councils to designate all land into 3 zones – growth, renewal, and conservation. PFF’s vagueness about what placing land in each category precisely means makes judging this difficult.   

Professor Mattthew Carmona is clear that free-fire zoning systems do not produce acceptable results (Japan), that zoning models which add layers of rules per district tend to generate paperwork and history-bound immobility (US), so that for acceptable results you need local frameworks everywhere, i.e. masterplans combined with codes (Germany).(Planning for an uglier future). Which requires a lot of local resourcing.  Increased resourcing is promised in PFF – but it doesn’t feel very local.

  • Another important new element is the top-down imposition of housing targets.  National government will set the numbers, local government will decide where stuff gets built (details still lacking).

Some elements in BBBBC are regrettably lacking:

  • The suggestion for equalising the burden of taxation on newbuilds, and on the refurbishment of existing buildings – has been dropped.  A pity because refurbs are very much more environmentally friendly.

How should we react? 

Elements which seem positive:

  • The ambition to move away from a discretionary system in the hands of councillors towards a more consultative system with a strengthened local planning cadre (1.17, 1.18) which directly interacts with ‘the people’ seems positive (though genuine consultation is expensive and difficult).  
  • The move to more visual, digital and shorter local plans, which ordinary people can intuitively understand, helping them make genuine choices, is a huge plus. Modern digital software makes it incredibly easy to understand visually what planners have in mind (see https://vu.city/vucity-bristol  You can fly around the city virtually seeing what things will look like. Hopefully the council would show alternatives – We need to build X new units, so shall we do this, or this or this?
  • The move to a code-based system with its various benefits, bearing in mind that poorly-implemented code-based systems can be even worse than what we now have (see Carmona).
  • The replacement of CIL and s106 by a standard contribution scale based on sale values, removing endless gaming of the system by developers (1.19), seems a plus.

Negative elements

  • The whole discussion of the difference between Growth and Renewal areas, and what each implies, is suspiciously obscure. 
  • The proposal that “Development management policy” should be lifted out of local hands and placed in hands of the government (Proposal 2, esp 2.13).  “Development management policy” is nowhere defined, so it is impossible to know what this might mean, which counts as a negative. If it means everything that is (e.g.) called ‘DM____’ in the Bristol Local Plan, well this is unrealistic.

Ho hum elements

  • A new ‘national standard method’ for establishing housing requirement figures (Proposal 4). No detail is given (see planoracs), so this is difficult to judge.

Conclusion – there is currently no planning democracy in Bristol.  Maybe this offers us real hope.

Inevitably people will feel that local democracy is being undermined by PFF. But local democracy in Bristol planning hardly exists. Our Supplementary Planning Document was written by a mayoral appointee, passed by a mayor-appointed cabinet, and is binding on members of the Development Control Committee.  If they reject buildings permitted by the SPD’s terms they will be over-ruled on appeal, at great cost to the council.  So our present system represents the views of one man, the mayor.  That may be some people’s idea of democracy, but not mine or (I wager) yours. 

There is a long way to go before PFF’s proposals are fleshed out.  But surely the idea that plans should be visual, and decided at an early stage by local people, and that no plan should be approved without the council showing that it has listened to local people and acted on their suggestions, could be a step forward.

Footnote:

An interesting and competent summary of Planning for the Future (no reading required!) was given to a council scrutiny committee by Sarah O’Driskoll, who got it down to 10 short minutes with good visuals in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8cwm6ATDeKA&feature=youtu.be (from 1:44). Quite a good summary though she arguably did not greatly explore PFF’s somewhat idealistic aspiration of taking planning power away from the council and putting it in the hands of ordinary people instead!

Followed by a lot of panicky comment from councillors who, while admitting they haven’t read it, are planning to put forward a cross-party protest about it, coordinated by chair, councillor Paula O’Rourke (who hasn’t read it either).

Bristol planning officers Zoe Willcox, Sarah O’Driskoll, and even cabinet member Nicola Beech seemed quietly positive about it.