• Development Intelligence

Planning White Paper – Five reasons why it will fail

Image taken from Planning White Paper

Call the DI team a bunch of sceptics if you will, but in the words of Private Fraser from Dad’s Army: “We’re all doomed”. The Government’s shiny new Planning White Paper, Planning for the Future, is not going to end well. Here’s why:

1. Impracticality – Let’s be positive first: there are some nice ideas in the White Paper. Simplicity, always good. Maps, digitisation, less stifling detail, also all good. Then there are the nice sounding but entirely ‘sacrificial elements’ which are just red meat for the property industry but we all know they will never happen because central and local government will kill them at birth: the new Growth designation acting as an assumed outline consent, 8/13/16 week application timescales as hard deadlines with fee rebates if the deadlines are not met, and rebates for application fees if you win at appeal. Rebates galore it seems. All lovely, but ain’t never gonna happen.

So to the negatives, and sadly there’s a lot of rather large ones. Put simply, so much of it is just impractical. Let’s run through a list of some the most obvious challenges:

  • The timescales are just insanely, heroically optimistic – more about this below.

  • The White Paper is full of local plan making and residential…but literally nothing else. No mention of retail, logistics, offices etc. Were a few chapters deleted by accident before publication?

  • Nationally set housing targets and Infrastructure Levy rates for every local authority in the country. No problems there. We’ll have that sorted in no time, for sure!

  • The new local plan maps are going to be so difficult to draw up when the three land designations – Growth, Renewal and Protection – are so simplistic. They’re going to look like a crazily busy Damian Hurst spot painting to deal with all the conflicting situations for the myriad of sites in all three zones. Maybe more like a Jackson Pollack after a really drug induced painting session?

  • And there will be more exceptions than English grammar. One obvious illustrative example: how to deal with previously developed land in the greenbelt? Greenbelt we know is clearly headed for Protection. But already developed sites in the greenbelt? Just one tiny example local authority planners and their coloured pens will face on site after site after site in all three designations.

  • And similarly on regional planning: no mention of the London Plan or GMSF.

  • Local design codes? Those won’t be controversial and argued over endlessly at all!

  • Codifying beauty? How is that ever going to work? Is Mrs Miggins, the junior architect in Lower Snoring District Council, going to decide what beautiful is? God help us!

These are just a few examples. The task is absolutely enormous.

2. Baked in delay – The delay to even getting this planning reform initiative to start is going to stymie the proposals. Just look at the immediate ‘jobs to do’ list central Government has given itself in the White Paper:

  1. Replacing planning law almost entirely.

  2. Updating the NPPF.

  3. Changing PPG.

  4. New national data standards for plans, planning applications and consultee info.

  5. Creating a national model design code and a national body to oversee it.

  6. Designing and delivering the new Infrastructure Levy system and its necessary legislation.

  7. Changing PD rights.

  8. Reviewing and updating the framework for heritage assets.

And that’s just for starters. This list is literally years of work for the civil service.

3. Timescale – The history of planning reform is that it takes eons. Literally years and years and years. Some historical examples for you:

  • The previous Coalition Government’s planning reform legislation required all councils to have adopted a new local plan by 2015. Right now, in September 2020, only just over 50% have.

  • When New Labour’s previous planning reform attempt, the 2004 Planning & Compulsory Purchase Act, created Local Development Frameworks, there were still then 30 councils that had not adopted their first local plan under the previous 1968 regime!

  • And let’s not forget dear old York City Council which hasn’t adopted a local plan since 1952!

  • If we hark back to perhaps the very first piece of town planning regulation, the 1909 Town Planning Act, by 1914 only 13 plans had been approved despite 172 councils attempting to produce one (albeit that at this time they were optional).

The amount of difficult and conflicting consultation responses the Government is going to receive on the White Paper by 29 October, just in itself, is going to take yonks to work through. And the multitudinous and sometimes diametrically opposed responses are going to highlight the enormous complexity of the gargantuan task the Government has set itself. So there will be a pause, perhaps a long one, before MHCLG is anywhere near to introducing a new Planning Bill for Parliamentary scrutiny and debate. (There may even need to be another consultation period).

Then there’s…the Bill’s passage through Parliament. Uncle Tom Cobley and all, having engaged with the White Paper’s consultation, will then have a second go lobbying MPs and peers to try and get the changes they want in the Bill. So the new Planning Act, whenever it comes, will be comfortably behind schedule.

Then there’s…the implementation period (2.5 years for councils without a recently adopted plan and 3.5 years for those which do) when every council will be required to rewrite their Local Plan. Just a wild hunch: they won’t deliver on time. We know, a crazy, mad, off the cuff thought! Maybe this time they’ll all just knuckle down and really try harder?

Then there’s…the transitional arrangements to take us from the current system to the new one, not even thought about yet. But that’s a whole other ball game.

Then there’s…the inevitable ‘timetable extensions’ as local authorities fumble their way through the process at warp factor zero and fail to deliver (m)any of these new plans on schedule, ie by May 2024 coincidentally the time of the next General Election.

4. Neutered to death – Even if you get over the impracticality of the proposals and the considerable delays that are inevitable, we can already see the ‘forces of conservatism’ as Tony Blair used to call them, limbering up for battle. With so many vested interests and so much at stake, the lobbying will be ferocious. Just imagine how many organisations are going to try and neuter these proposals: Tory councillors across the country, shire Tory activists, opposition parties, all those groups with acronyms – RTPI, TCPA, RIBA, POS, BCO, HBF, SHITE (okay, we made that last one up). Then there are the ‘greeny meanies’ – CPRE, RSPB, National Trust, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace. And on and on it will go. Everyone is going to try and fiddle with the White Paper.

And then ‘lawfare’ will ensue. Appeal decisions and JRs galore that will gum up the system retrospectively changing some of the proposals’ original intent. Lawyers will get richer, something DI’s good friend Mr Kitkat QC will surely have noticed when helping draft the White Paper?

5. Political fatigue and musical chairs – Planning reform always loses votes and history shows political support therefore inevitably wanes. Why? Because the public just aren’t interested in it. They want taxes down and public sector delivery up (no conflict there, surely?). They want lockdown ended and Covid under control. They want the promised post-Brexit boom. And the longer the interminable planning reform process drags on, the closer it gets to the May 2024 General Election, the more noisy all those groups with acronyms are, then the more it will be perceived as a drag on votes. And with all this noisy opposition, Government political will always fades. And quickly. Remember the Lansley NHS reforms? They were going to change the world once. They got subsumed by opposition noise, BBC criticism and the rest, Mr Lansley was moved on and that nice Jeremy Hunt was brought in to calm things down by just throwing lots of money at the NHS to keep them quiet. As political fatigue sets in, so the initial zeal and the zealots move on. The impetus is dissipated. A new band of political advisors arrive and design a way to make the pain go away with the minimum political fuss. A ministerial reshuffle happens. In the end a new government arrives. The waters close around and life moves on.

There will be many painful years of planning reform ahead. At times it will be chaotic. But in August 2030, will any of it actually add up to a row of substantive beans?