In January this year, the former Prime Minister David Cameron signalled a new-found interest in regeneration policy, announcing that a new nationwide strategy would include measures to sweep away the "planning blockages" holding back the renewal of "so-called sink estates".
A lot has happened since then, including the Brexit vote, Cameron’s subsequent resignation, and the installation of a new ministerial team at the Department for Communities and Local Government. But work on the strategy continued and last week it was finally unveiled, published only a few weeks later than the Autumn Statement deadline set by the former Prime Minister.
However, the content of the Estate Regeneration National Strategy appears to stop short of Cameron’s promise of measures to "sweep away the planning blockages" holding back estate renewal.
Instead, it sets out a range of existing planning approaches that the government believes could be harnessed to facilitate and support estate regeneration schemes.
Opportunities for estate regeneration should be considered as part of the evidence base when local plans are put together, the strategy suggests. It says that, if needed, an area action plan (AAP) - a detailed type of development plan document focused on the development needs of a specific area - can be produced. Alternatively, a "quicker to produce" supplementary planning document could be produced to cover specific sites, the strategy says.
It also encourages local authorities to consider whether local development orders (LDOs) - which give a grant of planning permission to specific types of development within a defined area - "could unlock schemes on a site specific basis". Neighbourhood plans or neighbourhood development orders are "powerful vehicles for supporting estate regeneration schemes", the document suggests.
Meanwhile, the new permission in principle mechanism, introduced by the Housing and Planning Act 2016, presents an "opportunity to substantially de-risk regeneration schemes", according to the document. The mechanism allows permission in principle to be conferred on sites allocated for housing in qualifying documents, including brownfield registers and neighbourhood plans.
Of the planning tools suggested in the strategy, a number have suffered from low take-up, or have little track record in assisting estate regeneration. Latest Planning Inspectorate (PINS) figures show that only five AAPs were submitted for examination in 2015/16, while the number of LDOs adopted has yet to rise above 30 in a single year. And neighbourhood planning experts told Planning that there are few examples of neighbourhood plans that have been drawn up in areas earmarked for urban renewal.
Ellie Gingell, principal planner at consultancy Bidwells, said that neighbourhood planners in urban areas often have an additional hurdle to jump through because such locations tend to lack parish and town councils, which are automatically responsible for neighbourhood planning in the areas in which they exist. In unparished areas, a neighbourhood forum, with a membership comprising at least 21 individuals, must be set up. She said: "It’s a complicated process to understand - you need a strong local leader to initiate that process. It’s quite time intensive."
Neighbourhood planning consultant Tony Burton said that, while it was right for the strategy to identify neighbourhood planning as a tool to support estate regeneration, reasons behind the low numbers of plans being used to support urban renewal include resistance to the idea from some local authorities. "They’ve seen it as getting in the way of the grown-ups," he said.
But both Burton and Gingell insisted that neighbourhood plans could be a useful tool to support estate regeneration. "In an area where it is working, neighbourhood planning brings people together and gives them a sense of agency," Burton said. He believes this can act as a counterpoint to the sense of disenfranchisement and loss of control often felt by residents affected by estate renewal schemes. Neighbourhood plans can be a "very good way of being able to give a community’s wishes statutory weight in the plan-making process", Gingell says.
Mary Crew, principal planner at consultancy Peter Brett Associates, said that, while LDOs have so far not been extensively used, the tool could be a "really helpful" one for estate regeneration schemes. LDOs give more confidence to the development industry by addressing what are perceived to be development constraints, such as flood risk and contamination, she explains. "What an LDO does is tackle those unknowns, puts together an indicative scheme which demonstrates issues can been mitigated and a viable scheme developed," she said.
Alison Tero, senior director in property firm CBRE’s national planning team, welcomed the strategy’s recognition that local plan policies setting site-specific expectations for design, density, layout and open space can help set the parameters necessary to underpin viability assessments. But she added: "These policies must not be overly prescriptive, as they may impact on the future deliverability of individual schemes."
Gerry Hughes, chief executive of property firm GVA, said that he had "never seen planning as a problem in bringing about estate regeneration". He said that there is a "lot of logic" in the strategy’s emphasis on rebuilding estates at higher densities - it says that a "key element" of estate regeneration is "often the promotion of a mix of tenures on previously single tenure estates".
"Many of these estates are relatively low density, because the utilisation of land is relatively ineffective," Hughes said. "In most instances, there is scope for creating denser development that means a better utilisation of the available land to improve viability."