Communities secretary Robert Jenrick last week used the publication by free market think tank Policy Exchange of a series of essays on the planning system as a moment to repeat his desire for a rethink of English planning "from first principles". His comment had additional significance, coming in the wake of a string of press reports purportedly revealing government plans, hatched in Downing Street, for a "major overhaul" of the planning system in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.
Articles in The Sunday Times and The Financial Times (FT) suggested the government is looking to introduce a zonal planning system and a raft of new London Docklands-style development corporations, plus a significant expansion of permitted development (PD) rights and a major deregulation of the use class system. According to the FT, ministers are describing the changes as a "New Deal" for planning and hope it "can be agreed in time for a wider economic announcement in July by [Chancellor] Rishi Sunak".
In some senses this should not be a surprise – the government in March published its Planning for the Future policy document, setting out a raft of proposals to reform the sector – which Jenrick also described at the time as a "first principles" rethink. This was supposed to be in advance of the long-awaited Planning White Paper in the spring, since understandably delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. It is unclear whether these latest reports are evidence of a real change in government thinking since Planning for the Future, or simply of a desire to look radical in response to the current economic crisis.
Importantly, many of the themes highlighted in the recent press reports were also issues raised in the March policy paper. The direction of travel – of limiting democratic involvement in development control but bringing forward democratic engagement to earlier in the planning process and aiming to protect quality through the use of design codes – appears to remain the same. Hence, Jenrick last week said in the Policy Exchange document that he aimed to "speed up and simplify this country's overly bureaucratic planning process", while maintaining "high quality design and sensitivity to the local vernacular".
Commentators said the question therefore is not about the direction of travel, but about how far along the road to go. Hugh Ellis, director of policy at the Town and Country Planning Association, said: "Inside number 10, it's about finally nailing the 1947 [Town and Country Planning Act] system and bringing an end to the nationalisation of development rights".
But Chris Rumfitt, chief executive of public affairs firm Field Consulting, said the situation was more nuanced. "There are people at the heart of government who want to radically liberalise planning, but this is a debate and I don't think there's a definite position yet." However, he added: "Covid and the scale of the economic set-back gives more power and agency to those arguing in that [more radical] direction."
Despite this uncertainty, there are some clear expectations that the Planning White Paper will be published before the summer recess. Roger Hepher, director at planning consultancy hgh Consulting predicted it to include measures to help businesses survive in the immediate aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis, such as relaxing rules governing how retailers are able to use outside space.
Hepher, Rumfitt and the TCPA's Ellis all predicted that details of the trailed expansion of PD rights and deregulation of use classes designed to help struggling high streets adapt to changing demand will be published in July, to accompany the chancellor's widely-anticipated economic statement. Ian Fletcher, director of policy at lobby group the British Property Federation said: "There is clearly a recovery plan being prepared for July and planning will likely form part of that. The sense is that the Planning White Paper has been recalibrated in the light of the circumstances."
The expansion of PD was trailed in the March policy paper. This suggested it will include long-promised rights to build upward extensions on existing buildings and to demolish existing commercial premises and replace them with new build homes, despite significant opposition to both these measures in previous consultations.
The reform of use classes, proposing the merger of the existing commercial use classes, was trailed in an October 2018 consultation, which prompted widespread opposition. Despite this, the Sunday Times last week reported that the new plans will give high street premises "complete flexibility" to change their use.
The BPF's Fletcher said he did not think full use class deregulation was warranted, while Richard Patient, founder of public affairs consultant Thorncliffe, said: "Deregulating in this area is politically unpopular because councillors worry they will just end up with a proliferation of fast-food and betting shops."
Much less certain even than all this, however, are the more potentially far-reaching reforms trailed in the last couple of weeks, suggesting a move towards a simpler "zonal" planning system such as that used on the continent and in much of the US. Zonal planning comes in different forms, but typically requires planners to 'zone' defined areas of a plan area for different uses, within which development is automatically permitted as long as conditions are adhered to. The March policy paper suggested a modest move in this direction, with non-specific additional "support" for councils using existing zoning tools, such as local development orders, in limited areas.
While there is clearly pressure from some – such as Prime Minister Boris Johnson's ex-Policy Exchange housing advisor Jack Airey – to go much further, many commentators expect any expansion of zoning, potentially allied with more development corporations, to be limited to specific geographical growth areas. Mike Kiely, chairman of local authority body the Planning Officers Society, said he thought that it was very unlikely that zoning would be rolled out across the country. However, he thought it could be effective if targeted at specific areas alongside tools such as design codes to support quality.
The reason for commentators' scepticism about the prospect of widespread zoning is largely practical, because they believe the scale of opposition would be too significant. A zoning approach, though it has not been detailed, would likely imply the removal of democratic input into development control. "I suspect there would be outcry were it to be widespread," Kiely said.
Rumfitt said the current planning system was popular with grassroots Tories. "These people aren't going to let the central party sweep away their planning powers without a fight. There would be massive opposition – moving the whole country to zonal planning would be the work of half a decade – it's not how you'd go about speeding things up in the short term."
How likely are the key proposals to be introduced?
1) Introducing a zonal planning system and "development zones"
The Sunday Times reported that ministers were considering introducing a "zonal planning system" where "key" planning decisions "will be taken from local councils and handed to development corporations". The FT said the government was looking at creating new "development zones", where "private developers will play an expanded role" and "planning rules would be relaxed". In March, the government said it "will trial the use of templates for drafting local development orders and other zonal tools to create simpler models and financial incentives to support more effective use". At the same time, it also said it wanted to create four new development corporations in the Oxford-Cambridge arc and one in the East Midlands. A widespread zonal system is unlikely in the short term, say commentators, though greater encouragement of LDOs and the creation of development corporations with planning powers in specific areas is expected.
Verdict: Only likely in specific areas
2) Using design codes to fast track "beautiful" buildings through the planning process
The Sunday Times said that Number 10 advisor Dominic Cummings and Jenrick were "backing a new fast-track system for developers of high-quality, well-designed buildings". The FT linked this proposal to the use of zoning. It said design codes could be given greater weight in planning decisions so that “attractive” buildings can be fast-tracked through the planning process. This would be modelled on the “as-of-rights” system in the US where "a proposed development that complies with all applicable zoning codes does not require any special consideration from the authorities". In January, the housing secretary Robert Jenrick confirmed that a new "fast track for beauty" would be implemented, as recommended by the government's Building Better Building Beautiful Commission.
3) The expansion of permitted development (PD) rights
Despite controversy over the quality of new homes produced under existing PD rights, the FT article said PD rights were likely to be expanded to allow further changes of use for new housing without the need for planning permission. In March, Jenrick said the government would introduce a new permitted development (PD) right "to encourage building upwards" by the summer, and will consult on another PD right allowing the demolition of commercial buildings and their replacement with housing.
4) Complete deregulation of the use class order for high street premises
According to The Sunday Times, one of the proposed measures would allow high street businesses to change their use "with complete flexibility". Commentators said there is likely to be some relaxation of the use class order for commercial uses but not a complete deregulation.
Verdict: Unlikely, but some relaxation expected