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Zoning in on planning reform

30 July 2020

By Scott Harker, Newgate Engage

The American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin once wrote that in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. Were Mr Franklin alive today he might well add ‘attempted Government reform of the planning system‘ to his list of certainties. 

Reform of the planning system has long been a focus for successive Governments, which have all pledged ‘radical’ action to speed up housebuilding and boost the economy.   

The current Government is no different, committing itself to ditching what it sees as a dated, bureaucratic system that inhibits dynamism, growth and its ability to get things done. The Government is soon due to set out proposals to reform the planning system, with rumours that a US-style zonal planning model could be introduced. Such a system would allocate uses to geographic zones allowing developers to gain automatic planning permissions in those areas if they meet the right criteria. So rather than taking a planning application before a planning committee, developers would need to ensure that a development corporation certified their proposals as being appropriate for that zone.

Such a system would have the advantage of accelerating development once the zonal plan is adopted. In theory developers would know what sort of development could happen in a certain area and could then get on with delivering it. Given the Government’s ambitions for housing and infrastructure delivery, it’s not hard to see why this would be appealing. 

However, adopting such an approach across the country would likely be met with stiff opposition from Councillors who would no doubt see this as an attempt by the Government to strip local authorities of one of their most fundamental powers. There would need to be extensive debate and consultation on what the new zones would look like and then we move on to questions such as how detailed would the policies be? Would zones overlap? How would policy conflicts be resolved? Anyone who has gone through the experience of local plan making will know that such policies do not come into force overnight, but rather after years of consultation and review. 

Local communities would also be unlikely to react positively to any attempts to remove their ability to influence development in their own “backyards” and could end up punishing local Conservative Councils at the ballot box in favour of resident association candidates. For a party that gained a large Parliamentary majority on the back of a promise to ‘take back control’, the Conservatives could find that voters try to do just that over planning in their area.  

So while this is not a Government that shies away from taking a radical course of action, its attempts to reform the planning system will have to be very carefully managed As Benjamin Franklin also once said “Glass, China and Reputation are easily cracked, and never well mended”, the Government would do well to think on this advice.