New London Architecture

Planning reforms receive mixed reaction from NLA Expert Panel

Friday 07 August 2020

David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ

NLA’s network of planning experts reacted with wide-ranging concern at radical proposed planning reforms announced by communities secretary Robert Jenrick this week. While many applauded the moves towards greater digitisation of the system, the majority argued that greater investment in planning authorities is needed if such a huge ‘culture change’ can be realised. 

The Planning for the Future consultation paper, which is available to read here aims to ‘overhaul the outdated planning system’, reform the way the country builds, with a new levy for developers, ‘fast-track system for beautiful buildings’ and land separated into ‘growth’, ‘renewal’ or ‘for protection’, decided by ‘local consensus’. But many suggested that the changes would prove difficult given how under-resourced planning authorities across the capital and beyond have become.

Head of planning at HTA Design Dr Riette Oosthuizen said that zoning can and does work in many other countries, but needs to be built on the right foundations. ‘Can we afford the luxury to get this wrong, following a pandemic?’, she asked. ‘The whole planning system is not at fault, although some of its component parts certainly require thorough interrogation. Even a zoning system can’t be implemented effectively through local authority planning departments stripped of resources and cash.’

Oosthuizen added that labelling areas for ‘growth’, and supporting development through ‘planning permission in principle’ - which appears to form part of the ‘renewal’ classification - would mean local authorities taking on a much more pro-active role in assessing sites for their suitability to deliver high quality homes. But this will require the right skills, including in-house architectural skills to test capacity through design proposals. ‘It will also require a huge culture change. This presents two options: either resource local authorities better or involve the private sector as a partner in effectively giving sites planning permission’.
Getting a comprehensive system of design codes in place to support areas of growth and renewal will also take time and resources, and, even when a design code is in place, they are still open to different interpretations. Having a ‘code’ does not automatically translate into ‘quality’, she went on. ‘A pattern-book, as mentioned by Jenrick, can work if it is context specific. However, I do hope the assumption is not that we are going to get it right with nationally prescribed pattern books of what housing should look like. Design quality is a process; it involves opinions and not a pattern book alone. The outcomes the government guarantee should be long-term quality of life and wellbeing, not purely building a large quantity of homes.’
 
Hawkins/Brown partner Darryl Chen said he welcomed the move to using more technology and general development management policies nationally but questioned both how this would interact with the London Plan and on the categorisation of land into three types. What protection might there be for the setting of, say, a listed building not within a conservation area, he asked. The ‘marvellously simple’ categorisations also risk raising the stakes for those who have an interest in the land, said Chen, be they local groups, amenity groups or property developers, and fierce battles over designation may result; likewise on height and density. The liberalisation of planning use classes and simple site designations, Chen warned, ‘might meet local disapproval’ as with the local authority ‘push back’ on PD rights. How, moreover, could rules on height or use be established? ‘London is a complex place. The White Paper reveals an underlying conviction that the way to deal with complexity is to simplify. I don’t think it’s that simple’. 

‘London’s complex urban fabric demands a planning system that is flexible, gives nuanced guidance and is subject to professional judgement and local scrutiny. Coarse categorisations and potentially homogenising zoning regimes undermine this richness’

While Forsters partner Victoria du Croz was concerned about possible delays in calculating new infrastructure levy payments, and ultimately, potentially less cash available, Grosvenor Britain & Ireland director of development Thomasin Renshaw felt the levy looks ‘problematic’, not least because it is based on an assessment of end value and not profitability. ‘London varies hugely and any assessment of value is highly granular and subject to fluctuation’, she said, ‘particularly commercial and other town centre uses’.  

BECG associate director Sarah Wardle said shifting the consultation phase from application will be ‘difficult’ and would mean that LPAs would have to ‘revolutionise’ their Local Plan consultation, which requires ‘significant investment’. ‘It is hard to see how trust and legitimacy will be improved with a relatively short engagement window and significantly less plan content’, said wardle.
Others including BDP planning director Anna Sinnott questioned whether planning was the reason not enough homes are being built. ‘We can’t get away from the fact that planning must reflect the multiplicity and messiness of modern life, which given recent events is increasingly more complex, slower, and less predictable’, she said.
Some elements in the proposals, however, were welcomed. Farrells partner Peter 
Barbalov said the move to a rules-based, transparent approach should be applauded, as should be the emphasis on digital tools, which many Expert panellists welcomed and Barbalov felt would bring more certainty, less speculation and long-term community involvement in shaping local plans and the wider London Plan. But again, would there be sufficient resources available to do this justice, wondered Renshaw.

VU.CITY founding director and chairman Gordon Ingram said these moves to use PropTech would help to ‘properly explain proposals and their impact to all stakeholders’, with the potential for better and faster planning decisions.

But wider questions remain about how the White Paper’s proposals affect regional planning, the London Plan, how the new zones will be defined, who produces the design codes and how long all of this will come to fruition. 

Finally, Barbalov echoed others in noting the proposals’ less ambitious outlook on sustainability targets (mandatory zero carbon-ready homes are being pushed back to 2050) and thinness on detail areas such as the pursuit of ‘beauty’ – along with who might be the arbiters of that.

The Planning Expert Panel will be meeting again in the next few weeks to discuss the proposals in more detail, and the NLA will be responding in full to the consultation which closes end of October.

The NLA Expert panel’s reactions in full:

Darryl Chen, Partner, Head of Urban Design, Hawkins Brown
 
“London is a complex place. The white paper reveals an underlying conviction that the way to deal with complexity is to simplify. I don’t think it’s that simple. 
 
The categorisation of all sites into three types is marvellously simple but the fewer the categories the higher the stakes for those who have an interest in the land, be they local residents, amenity groups or property developers. There is much talk of giving more agency to local voices, however, this can only set the stage for some fierce battles over how land gets their designations locked-in for years. Likewise height and density. Setting absolute limits on height and density would constitute a real planning reform, but I fear this is just shifting the burden of adjudication upstream from development management to policy, and giving clarity to developers while taking it away from locals. Note, local plan allocations already deal with use and usually include guidance on height and density. The presumption in favour of developments in line with allocations already exists.
 
London’s complex urban fabric demands a planning system that is flexible, gives nuanced guidance and is subject to professional judgement and local scrutiny. Coarse categorisations and potentially homogenising zoning regimes undermine this richness. The London Plan sought to fill the gap in policy directive left in the wake of the slimline NPPF. In a bid not simply to ‘build more’, but to respond to specific issues like industrial intensification and social infrastructure, this encapsulated London’s response: there is a limit to which planning policy can be reduced and simplified.
 
In terms of local plan making, standardising the format of plans and routinisation through technology can only be a good thing. I also welcome the move to making local plans shorter through enshrining principles within a national policy, but ironically this sounds like the PPGs and PPSs that were scrapped when the NPPF arrived in a bid to ‘reduce red tape’.
 
The foregrounding of beauty over design is worrying firstly because it is not entirely clear who will be the arbiters of beauty, and secondly that design encompasses a hugely wider range of concerns on which good place-making depends.
 
Many London boroughs do not have the option of designating large swathes of land for new housing and rely on the densification of a network of brownfield sites. Combined with a renewed push for housing delivery, the affordability test being most acute in London, this is potentially at odds with local resident-informed use, height and density limitations contained in local plans.”
 
 
Dr Riette Oosthuizen, Head of Planning, HTA Design
 
“Zoning can work and does work in many other countries, but it needs to be built on the right foundations. Can we afford the luxury to get this wrong, following a pandemic? The whole planning system is not at fault although some of its component parts certainly require thorough interrogation. Even a zoning system can’t be implemented effectively through local authority planning departments stripped of resources and cash. 
 
Labelling areas for ‘growth’, and supporting development through ‘planning permission in principle’ which appears to form part of the ‘renewal’ classification would mean local authorities taking on a much more pro-active role in assessing sites for their suitability to deliver high quality homes – this will require the right skills, including in-house architectural skills to test capacity through design proposals. It will also require a huge culture change. This presents two options: either resource local authorities better or involve the private sector as a partner in effectively giving sites planning permission.
 
It appears that design quality comes as an inherent promise by the Government in its overhaul of the planning system. Compiling a design code requires a thorough understanding of the basic components of long term residential quality. Ideally, they need to be co-designed with residents. They need to be context specific and appropriate for local demographic profiles and need. They cover more than the appearance of homes.
 
Getting a comprehensive system of design codes in place to support areas of growth and renewal will take time and resources. Even when a design code is in place, they are still open to different interpretations. Having a ‘code’ does not automatically translate into ‘quality’. A pattern-book, as mentioned by Jenrick, can work if it is context specific. However, I do hope the assumption is not that we are going to get it right with nationally prescribed pattern books of what housing should look like. Design quality is a process; it involves opinions and not a pattern book alone. The outcomes the government guarantee should be long term quality of life and wellbeing, not purely building a large number of homes.”
 
 
Victoria Du Croz, Partner, Forsters
 
“The White Paper proposes a nationally set value based infrastructure levy to replace the current Community Infrastructure Levy regime. The new levy would be based on the final value of the development, would be payable in respect of all use classes, and would be charged at the point of occupation.  Whilst this sounds positive, especially the delayed payment, there will need to be clear guidance as to how the “final value” is calculated to avoid unnecessary delays in calculating the payment. The White Paper proposes that affordable housing delivered on-site would be an in-kind levy payment.  Again, clear guidance on whether the full cost of delivering the affordable housing on-site can be off-set against the levy payment will be needed.  Whilst this would incentivise developers to deliver on-site, it could, if the nationally set levy is not calculated correctly, result in disproportionately less levy being available for infrastructure. CIL has proven to be highly complex and has needed numerous amendments to the initial legislation to correct unintended consequences. I hope the Government will take the time to get the details right on the drafting of this aspect of any new legislation”
 
 
Anna Sinnott, Planning Director, BDP
 
“No one can argue with the aims of making the planning system simpler, faster and more predictable. But is the planning system really the reason not enough homes are being built?
 
While some of the reforms proposed have the potential to be revolutionary, particularly digital planning and more meaningful community engagement, others feel like new names for very similar systems. How will a “Growth Area” differ from a “Strategic Site Allocation”? If “good design and site specific technical issues” still need to be resolved at planning application stage, how is this radically different to existing planning applications on sites with Strategic Allocations? The intent appears to be to remove the outline planning application stage, though these are often used to phase large scale developments and create flexibility for developers, not just to establish the principle of development. However, a result of this will be a greater emphasis on the plan making stage to define more detailed development parameters, and this can only be a good thing.
 
We can’t get away from the fact that planning must reflect the multiplicity and messiness of modern life, which given recent events is increasingly more complex, slower and less predictable.”
 
 
Peter Barbalov, Partner, Farrells
 
“On first reading the white paper, the move from discretion based to a rules-based, transparent approach should be applauded, as the planning system has been in need for a reform for a while.
 
The emphasis on digital tools is also welcomed. As we have witnessed in recent months, digital tools can be inclusive and key in the planning and consultation processes. These changes will benefit London as they can bring more planning certainty, less land speculation and long-term community involvement in shaping Local plans and the wider London Plan. Creating an identity and place is essential to the success of these schemes, and something I believe in coherently.
 
However, the paper is less than ambitious in its sustainability targets with all new homes having to be carbon neutral by 2050 and the promotion of gentler density, which is becoming increasingly less sustainable in the current climate crisis with its reliance on infrastructure and larger land take. There are other elements which are thin on detail, implementation, and clarity like the pursuit of ‘beauty’ and the lack of guarantee on the delivery of affordable housing.”
 
 
Lisa Webb, Partner, Gerald Eve
 
“On the face of it, it is hard to argue with many of the ideas behind the Government’s reform of the planning system in today’s Planning for the Future. It aims to deliver a simpler, quicker, more certain planning system using 21st century technology, streamlining policies and planning applications. Ambitions for more homes and sustainable, beautiful buildings and green places will be welcomed by all. As ever with these things, whilst the objectives may be laudable, the devil is often in the detail and the practical implementation of the reforms. 
 
Some immediate questions:
 
  • How will local authorities define areas of Growth, Renewal and Protection? Particularly in dense urban areas like central London where major development sites sit within and near to a multitude of conservation areas. 
  • Can city centres get the benefit of automatic planning permissions or permissions in principle or will it be business as usual?
  • There is a lot of focus, rightly so, on housing, but what about economic development and other uses?
  • Central London is of national importance, who will be producing the design codes for the Capital and how many will there have to be?
  • Where does this leave regional planning and the London Plan?
  • Is it realistic to assume agreement can be reached by communities and the local authorities on design codes for their areas which can actually deliver development?
  • Who is the arbiter of what is “beautiful” for the purposes of fast tracking developments?
  • Will scheme viability assessments be “swept away” or simply replaced with valuations in determining the Infrastructure Levy? How will the delivery of affordable housing work in practice?
  • How long will this all take to come to fruition – 3-4 years at the earliest by the time both legislation is passed and the first new Local Plans are produced.
  • And last but not least, can LPA resources cope?
 
 
Thomasin Renshaw, Director of Development, Grosvenor Britain & Ireland
 
“I welcome the focus on more engaging consultation during the plan-making stage as, if done correctly, this should result in less planning appeals and fewer surprises for local people. That said, I do wonder whether there really will be sufficient resource to do this justice. Also, the potential alternative of self-assessment by local authorities is not likely to be supported.
 
The proposed Infrastructure Levy looks to be problematic, not least as it is based on an assessment of end value and not the profitability of the scheme. London varies hugely and any assessment of value is highly granular and subject to fluctuation, particularly commercial and other town centre uses. It refers to a ‘small, fixed allowance for land costs’ in the threshold level but land values in London are never low – indeed, the narrative appears to presuppose that viability is only an issue in low value areas.”
 
 
Gordon Ingram, Founding Director & Chairman, VU.CITY
 
“It is becoming increasingly obvious to everyone involved in the planning process that the system simply isn’t working. The lack of transparency combined with complex data  results in confusion, uncertainty and cynicism at every level. This is not only a significant social cost but equally, requires major investment in time and money for the developer. Additionally, relatively few citizens choose to get involved in the process.
 
These are all the main disincentives that the White Paper is seeking to address. 
 
At the heart of the Paper though is the intention to use  PropTech to provide the enhanced visual clarity to properly explain proposals and their impact to all stakeholders. The clearer the information and the quicker and the easier it can be made available to all, the hope is better and faster planning decisions. 
 
The devil will be in the detail. This cannot be at the expense of not properly evaluating the quality of a proposal or its environmental impacts. 
 
We all know that ‘ a picture speaks a thousand words’, so this is an opportunity to visualise that data for all stakeholders so that the quality of a proposal and its impacts can be clearly appreciated.  Providing this information in relation to a Local Plan and other proposed changes In the vicinity will offer the overall context and content that both decision makers and stakeholders require and are entitled to. 
 
So I endorse the principle of the intention but wait to see how it is implemented on the ground such that it addresses the challenges we face today.”
 
 
Sarah Wardle, Associate Director, BECG
 
“The proposals did not disappoint in the scale of their ambition but are likely to fall short without a simultaneous review of the Green Belt.
 
The removal of obtusely prescriptive policies and the greater emphasis on certainty must be seen as a good thing for London, as too often highly suitable sites get stuck between the LPA and the GLA. Although it is likely that levels of policy prescription will move to other accompanying documents such as neighbourhood plans, which will become more common in the capital. Members of planning committees are also not restricted from refusing applications in growth areas in the same way that they might refuse reserved matters applications now.
 
Greater digitisation and greater simplicity are big improvements, as is the emphasis on meaningful consultation. However, shifting the consultation phase from application to plan making will be difficult. LPAs must revolutionise their Local Plan consultation, which requires significant investment.  It is also hard to see how trust and legitimacy will be improved with a relatively short engagement window and significantly less plan content.
 
Finally, the role of the GLA is likely to be significantly altered in response to these reforms.”

Additional responses from NLA members:

James Dilley, Director – Jestico + Whiles
 
“My preoccupation with planning is that the system is stuck in the 1940s. One of the big issues with residential is that it is not as simple as it used to be. You used to rent or buy, now there’s everything in between. It is stretching from traditional models to renting to coworking to BTR to long-stay hotels, short-stay hotels etc.
 
That line between transient residential and static residential is blurred through 10-15 stages of ownership or rental. A new planning system needs to recognise this.
 
The planning system does not respond in real-time to how people live. A lot of BTR products at the moment have more in common with radical schemes of the 1930s. The proposed system does not accommodate for increased complexities of use classes and the changing nature of residential.
 
A lot of our schemes, for example, are bona fide mix used scheme. The spaces and activities conjoin and different use classes come together in mixed-use spaces. It is very hard to draw a red line around them. Some spaces are independent but feed into each other. Any new system should be sensitive to the complexities around renting types and use spaces.”
 
 
Earle Arney, CEO & Founder, Arney Fender Katsalidis
 
“Halleluiah! Our broken planning system has what looks like the beginnings of long overdue reform. I applaud the government’s gusto in doing more than tinkering with a failed ‘planning by omission’ mantra, essentially based on articulating what is not possible, rather than what should be encouraged. I also breathe a sigh of relief that the Green Belt is being protected –  as I know from my firm’s research, there is ample well-connected land to supply the necessary housing to meet our 2050 population forecasts, all without building on the Green Belt. It is disappointing that mandatory ‘zero carbon-ready’ homes are being pushed back to 2050 but encouraging that the commitment remains nevertheless. All in all, the reforms are a great start in improving a system that compounds the embarrassing housing crisis, which is only getting worse.”
 
 
Richard Upton, Chief Development Officer, U+I
 
“These proposals do represent significant reform of our creaking planning system. But whether we merely tinker with the planning system or completely overhaul it, one issue will remain and that is the lack of trust between communities and other stakeholders and the developers who create homes and places.
 
“As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, the regeneration of our towns and communities will be one of the defining issues of our time. We need to sustainably reinvent our towns and cities to become thoughtful, efficient, healthy, enjoyable places, allowing everyone in society to prosper.
 
“Planning reform may help us do that, but the lack of trust in the property sector is systemic and crippling.  So we firmly believe the onus is on us, as developers, to work with communities and stakeholders and build support and trust for what we are doing – and involve them in that process in a meaningful way.
 
“And why wouldn’t we want to give a major role in shaping schemes to communities? Why wouldn’t we want to tap into their knowledge, their understanding, their pride? We believe that doing so leads to better outcomes, and the creation of more successful, sustainable places where people want to live and work.
 
“So by all means let’s seek to make our planning system better, but let’s not pretend policy alone can fix our broken system.  We in the property sector – all of us - have to work harder to rebuild the trust that has been so severely eroded.”


David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ


Planning

#NLAPlanning


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