The English planning system is largely discretionary, while most other developed countries have some version of a zoning system. The government’s recently announced plans to move in that direction by designating specific development areas would, if implemented, upend the system created by the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. On 5 October, LSE London hosted a workshop to discuss the Planning for the Future consultation. The discussion focused on the housing aspects, and confirmed our observation that planners, economists and housing specialists had different understandings of what the proposals meant. We address the three pillars of the consultation in turn.
Pillar 1 – Planning for development
Moving away from the site-by-site decision-making system that has been in place since the late 1940s, the consultation document proposes a system in which land would be assigned to three main categories: growth, renewal, or protected. Participants noted that the proposal is explicitly not zoning, according to MHCLG; rather, it would result in a simplified system relying it is suggested on 4-5 pages of rules. Participants described the proposals as ‘half-baked’ and said they did not reflect the reality in existing zoning systems, citing the example of New York City, where the zoning regulations run to several thousand pages.
Although the document aims at increasing certainty, this comes at the cost of reducing flexibility—and one participant argued that flexibility in moderation is part of the fundamental nature of planning. The proposals aim to reduce the element of negotiation (e.g. around S106), but participants noted that zoning systems internationally are often subject to long-drawn-out legal battles and political negotiation. Some attendees on the other hand, however, welcomed the potential of the reforms to give more clarity and precision about density, affordable housing percentages, and other key variables that affect the land market.
The second significant proposal would make local plans a statutory requirement for each local authority. Whilst participants acknowledged the need for strong, visionary local plans, there was a concern that the requirement that plans be produced within 30 months would place unsustainable pressure on already strained local authority resources – e.g. in ensuring land actually had the capacity to come forward and legally required buy-in by the water companies could not be achieved in that time.
As these new plans would significantly determine what could be built, the proposed new approach would require more public participation at the start of the planning process and at no later date. Participants said it was unrealistic to expect members of the public to envision and approve of developments in the abstract, rather than in concrete terms.
A key input to these local plans would be the housing targets, which would be determined by a formula and are currently expected to be over 300,000 nationally with 93,000 in London. The plans would need to identify adequate land and densities in growth and regeneration zones; failure to identify such areas would mean that local authorities simply would not achieve their targets. It is not clear what happens then. Participants also noted that importantly housing market areas do not coincide with local authority boundaries and that the current duty to cooperate mechanisms is to be removed without apparent replacement.
What is the role of the Mayor of London? The document does not refer to that office at all, aside from mention of the Mayoral CIL. The Mayor currently plays a significant role in regional spatial planning, crucial in a region such as London and the greater South-East where housing targets, capacities, and allocations are constantly revised.
It was suggested that although the document refers to a simplified evidence base for local plans, it calls simultaneously for more front-loading, public participation, and reliance on data-driven decision making—suggesting that in practice the changes might simply speed up what we already have.
Pillar 2 – Planning for beautiful and sustainable places
Pillar 2 advocates integrating beauty into the planning process (as suggested by Sir Roger Scruton’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission) through changes to national policy and legislation. It goes without saying that we should strive for visual harmony and beautiful homes, but a ‘fast track for beauty’ would be difficult to implement in practice. The notion of beauty is highly subjective and could be a recipe for lobbying and a return to site-by-site assessment. One participant suggested that the focus should be on high-quality design, which is part of the current system and might be easier to incorporate in a rules-based system through wider use of design guides (although the preparation of such guides is time consuming). Another suggested that beauty in design could be rewarded post-construction through, for example, a small tax concession or prize.
One planning specialist observed that the proposals would do nothing to address the most egregious examples of bad design, pointing to recent examples of office-to-residential conversions under permitted development rights, which can produce unliveable, small units with inadequate lighting and safety measures.
Pillar 3 – Planning for infrastructure and connected places
The final set of proposals relate to a proposed radical reform of the current land-value capture system. This would be achieved by removing S106 of the Town & Country Planning Act 1990 and the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), and replacing them with a new consolidated Infrastructure Levy. Mayoral CIL would be retained.
Some participants saw the proposals as enabling the capture of substantial additional amounts of revenue, overcoming the inefficiencies of S106, and reducing the number of exempted developments. Others saw the proposals as too vague (the document called for input as to how the infrastructure levy should be implemented), a lack of clarity as to whether the percentage(s) should be set nationally or locally, and on whether all exemptions should be removed. One participant, an observer of the planning system for many decades, said a lesson of planning history was that governments introduce new land-value capture systems at their own peril.
There was disagreement over whether the infrastructure levy was likely to achieve similar or higher levels of affordable housing as that currently achieved through S106. At present, CIL is not used for securing affordable housing arguably because it would require such a high levy that it would make much development unviable. On the other hand, some high-value developments produce more affordable housing than a fixed levy would secure. Participants recognised that the current system, though imperfect, is at least delivering a degree of affordable housing; they feared that a more ‘logical’ replacement would work less well in practice.
Participants agreed to hold a third debate specifically about land-value capture, given its complexity and significance.