Jenrick floats the zoning system of Tory donor developers’ dreams, by Cliff Hague

You get what you pay for. Junior business minister Nadhim Zahawi recently advised people to go to Conservative Party fund-raising dinners to get influence on planning.

No surprise then to find that £11m donated to the party in the last year from the property industry, according to the OpenDemocracy website, gets you a radical reform of the planning system through last week’s planning White Paper.

Cheap at the price – small change for deep pockets, big change for planners and the public. Following housing secretary Jenrick’s unpunished complicity in a bid to enable party donor Richard Desmond to sidestep a £40 million Community Infrastructure Levy contribution on his Isle of Dogs development, how reassuring is it to read Prime Minister Johnson’s White Paper foreword, stating that the proposed planning reforms will make “it harder for developers to dodge their obligations to improve infrastructure”?

Planning for the Future looks set to finally deliver on the dreams of the free market think tanks. Three zones: Growth; Renewal; Protection – though maybe just two in the end, if the responses can be managed.

The intermediate category looks like a way of testing the water. As the consultation document observes: “One option is to combine Growth and Renewal areas into one category and to extend permission in principle to all land within this area, based on the uses and forms of development specified for each sub-area within it.”

There is an obvious case to be made that if the code-based permissive regime in the Growth zones is a way to cut red tape and get more houses built, then why stop there? Will the prospect of “gentle densification” enrage residents of Cotswold villages? If not, we can go for a binary Build/Protect system.

The Protection zones are slated to include Green Belts, which attract speculative trading in options to develop subject to successful appeals, a route that leads back to ways to catch the ear of a minister.    

As I have written here before, zoning systems are common in other countries. In general they are indeed simpler to understand than our discretionary system. The quality of development they deliver depends on the skill of planners, the tools available, and the power and willingness of local planning authorities to be assertive.

Land value capture through acquisition, infrastructure provision, masterplanning then disposal for implementation can create good quality development in terms of design, environmental quality and inclusivity. Conversely, anyone familiar with towns across the USA will carry an image of the gas station/mall/funeral parlour/trailer park strips that are rolled out by zoning regulations that primarily deliver big parking lots. 

To save us from that dystopia, England will have a fast track for beautiful development.  With “red tape” already shredded, how much of a premium will that be, outside the Protected zones? Incidentally, it would be interesting to know more about the background to each of the attractive developments showcased in the photos in Planning for the Future. They look not bad for products of a system that the Prime Minister says “simply does not work”. How long did it take each to get planning permission, and were any conditions imposed?

For balance it might have been nice to have included shots of a couple of sites where planning permission was granted years ago but there is still no development on the ground. Perhaps Planning could run a readers’ photo competition?

The digitisation of planning is also promised. It is a surprise it has taken so long, but the standardisation proposed now will create a bigger market opportunity for the tech’ firms. Judging by some of the Covid-19 procurement deals, it could even be that Dominic Cummings knows a firm that could do the job quickly without the need for open tendering, though past government IT contracts have not always worked as planned. Digital stitching together of local plans will “enable a strategic national map of planning to be created.” National spatial planning, easy as doing a jigsaw. 


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