The Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) caused some controversy last month when its head of policy Dr Hugh Ellis raised concerns over government plans to grant permission in principle on certain sites, comparing it to zonal planning in countries such as the USA.
The government said in its Housing and Planning Bill that it intends to draw up a brownfield register and grant permission in principle for housing on those sites. This followed the July Productivity Plan, which outlined "a new zonal system which will effectively give automatic permission on suitable brownfield sites". And planning minister Brandon Lewis told a committee in September that "I am looking at some of the things that are going on in other places like America".
Ellis warned in a committee session last month that introducing zonal panning has been problematic elsewhere, and had ended up in the US Supreme Court 25 times since 1920 "because of (its) explicit use for racist purposes". He called on the committee to "ask officials how much work they did in comparing other zonal planning systems across the world in relation to those implications". Tory MP Stewart Jackson said Ellis's comment was "frankly ridiculous", while Lewis described the remarks as "inflammatory" and "ill-advised".
TCPA chief executive Kate Henderson told Planning that it is calling for greater clarity on how the system will work to make sure "that we have inclusive outcomes for communities".
She said that "in some US cities, zoning has been used to keep people of colour out of existing communities", adding that the TCPA is "absolutely not implying that this is being replicated here or that this is the government's intent".
The government's plan to grant permission in principle on large numbers of brownfield sites by way of a national development order, Henderson said, has the potential to effect a "big shift of power going away from local authorities" and could spell the end of discretionary planning.
She added that TCPA is in favour of learning from international best practice, as long as lessons and mistakes from abroad are also taken on board. If the UK moved to a Dutch-style system, she said, "we could end up with a much more efficient system" because the Netherlands do "a huge amount of detail and community engagement up front".
Mike Kiely, chair of the Planning Officers Society, said the permission in principle measure is simply about "converting an allocation into something a little bit firmer" to give banks more confidence for financing a project than an outline planning permission would bring. Kiely argued it does not have to take power away from local authorities. "But we'll be pressuring the government to make sure (it) doesn't take away those controls and considerations."
A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said the mechanism "will help ensure that development takes place on sites that people want to see built on and encourage more investment in new housing by providing developers greater certainty up front".