Zoning will only work if implementing a wider vision, by Catriona Riddell

It will be thirty years this month since I started as a graduate planner. During the decades I have experienced lots of changes to the system, all of which aimed to deliver a faster and fairer approach to planning.

Sadly, it feels like we have gone backwards in the last decade and now have a statutory system that is entrenched in regulation, and the role of planning professionals is far removed from the place-shaping role I signed up to.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the government has signalled its intention to once again rethink the planning system to better facilitate growth and deal with the post-Covid-19 recovery.

Within the mix of potential changes is the introduction of zoning. There has been a lot of debate recently about the merits of this, with a view in government that zoning of some kind could help thin out a clunky and inflexible system.

There are inevitably considerable objections to this, despite the fact that zoning has been used successfully for years in many different countries. The key concern seems to be that zoning could be introduced in isolation, without wider and necessary checks and balances. For it to work effectively and deliver good placemaking objectives, it would therefore have to be part of a wider package.

Critically, any zoning which confers an automatic right to permission needs to be set within the context of a robust but flexible strategic framework, offering a clearly articulated vision for an area, within which development plan policies and zoning areas can be developed locally.

This strategic framework should act as a high level investment framework which directs development to areas of change where the public sector intends to prioritise its investments, particularly in relation to infrastructure.

The framework should also set out where change is unlikely to be needed or should be avoided, but with room for growth if necessary over a 30 year period. In doing this, for example, the framework could set the general extent of green belt across an area, with a clear marker for where detailed boundary reviews would be needed over its lifetime.

The strategic frameworks would therefore not be part of the statutory development plan system, but would rely on local plans, in part, to deliver the shared vision at the local level. Some expectations around scale of growth, linked clearly to anticipated outcomes of the framework's vision, would therefore have to be included.
For example, they would need to provide baseline targets for housing and employment for the whole area, thus avoiding the over complex, arbitrary and static approach to assessing need in the current system.

A final prerequisite would be a much better approach to decision-making, not just in relation to the strategic priorities but also in terms of how any public sector funding is spent.

Governance arrangements for these frameworks must include all key bodies, as they have, for example, with the new and emerging growth boards. The bodies producing these frameworks must also be properly constituted to allow effective decision-making on funding.

Getting a planning system to work more efficiently and deliver better, more sustainable outcomes should not be complicated. We need a system that is fair, but we also need one that is more responsive and resilient to change over time. As a profession we need to be open to new and innovative ways of planning for the future and delivering better places, and who knows, zoning might just be part of the solution.

Catriona Riddell is strategic planning convenor for the Planning Officers Society and a freelance consultant

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