The consultation period for the Planning White Paper is finally over. As we approach the end of the year it is now time to move on, but how might things pan out from here? Traditionally the legislation necessary to implement the content of a white paper might take around eighteen months or so from publication. However, I think that we can all agree that this was no ordinary white paper. Not only was it far more wide-ranging than any previous planning white paper, but it was also incredibly high level, leaving a vast amount of work still to be done to fill the gaps. Its publication briefly elevated planning issues to headline news and the radical nature of some of the proposals have already provoked heated debate in Parliament. None of this would lead me to conclude that this is going to be a quick fix.
It was hardly a shock that a significant proportion of those initial headlines (and opposition to the proposals) were based around the new standardised method of determining housing numbers; how they should be calculated, and their distribution agreed. With the inevitable outcome of applying the algorithm being a further concentration of growth in the south and the south east in particular, opposition from Conservative backbenchers is unsurprising, both from those who question the ability of their constituencies to accommodate this step change in housing growth, but also from the new intake from the midlands and north of England, who are questioning the alignment with the government’s stated levelling up agenda.
Added to this a growing suspicion of algorithms generally and the fall-out from the disagreements with metro mayors over the imposition of regional Covid restrictions, would suggest to me that this will be a protracted debate. The only certainty here is that whatever the outcome, we are still going to require the delivery of hundreds of thousands of new homes per year.
How these homes are then distributed is something that the white paper is somewhat silent on. There seems to be a general consensus that we need something more effective than the existing duty to co-operate, but with the postponement of the Devolution White Paper it is far from clear yet how this ‘regional’ or should I say ‘local’ flavour will be applied.
Taking such a radical approach to Local Plan preparation will mean that there has to be a transition period, during which the already far from speedy local plan process may well slow down even further and there are plenty of examples already out there of plans where the pause button has been pressed. Who can blame local authorities who risk having their plans aborted at some future date from delaying until more clarity around the new style of plan emerges?
Which brings me to the resources question. It is local planning authorities that are going to have to implement most of these proposals. The very same Councils that have seen their planning departments’ budgets and staff numbers reduced radically over recent years. Are they going to be able to resource what will be a more intense local plan process (which will in effect also incorporate the consideration of outline applications), whilst at the same time progressing their existing plans to adoption, as well as continuing to do all the other things planning departments are required to do. Oh…. and prepare design codes, introduce new digital systems and the whole host of other new requirements outlined in the white paper? It can be argued that all this streamlining will be worth the effort in the long term, but are there currently the number of suitably qualified and experienced planners out there (or the Council budgets) to match the ambitious targets for implementation? I think I already know the answer to that question.
Few will mourn the demise of CIL, but is the government going to move straight from the four bullet points in a white paper to legislation without further consultation being necessary? I guess not. No land tax has ever been truly effective in the UK and it is remarkable to think that CIL is now the longest lasting form we have ever had. I suspect we will have to live with it for a further few years yet.
Whatever your opinion on the content of the white paper, it is clear that its publication represents only the start of what will be a long journey to implementation. Like many others, I fear that this uncertainty will have the unintended consequence of stalling many investment decisions, whilst at the same time distracting local authorities away from other important work to improve their existing processes and procedures.
What the Prime Minister describes in the forward to the document as a ‘whole new planning system’ cannot be delivered overnight. As a result, we are entering a world of transition and uncertainty, something which we are going to have to learn to live with for many years to come.
Now where have I heard that before?
Many thanks to Tim Burton MRTPI for the above blog article reflecting on this years Planning White Paper.
Tim is the former Head of Planning for the area covering both Taunton Deane and West Somerset Councils, where he oversaw the delivery of Taunton’s major housing growth leading to its designation as a Garden Town. In March 2019 he left the Councils to set up his own Planning Consultancy (Tim Burton Planning Ltd), which now provides a range of planning related services to private clients as well as local authorities. He is currently advising a district council in the south west on Heritage at Risk matters and has been working on a place-making strategy and associated policies for a unitary authority in the south east as well as carrying out service review work on behalf of the Planning Advisory Service. He also provides professional advice to both developers and private individuals. Tim is a member of the RTPI (SW) Regional Activities Committee and is also a Design Review Panel Member.