Say no! to detrimental Planning reform

An open letter to Sir Graham Brady about the recent Government Consultations

Dear Graham

I’d like to share with you some of the key points from my responses to the Government’s consultation about Planning Reform and some of my grave concerns about the approach the Government is taking, which appears to drive yet more power into the hands of developers.  I apologise for the length of this letter (and for any repetition that may be in it) but I wanted to get all my points over and to ask you to support my request to halt these reforms until the issues I am raising (as undoubtedly are others) are resolved.  It would also be helpful if you could share this letter with your colleagues, the PM and the Secretary of State (SoS).

Overall, the Planning Reforms are extremely biased against communities and in favour of developers.  Clear and significant inequities are boldly exhibited within the proposals and it certainly is not clear how the dominance of large companies has been addressed.  I have set out some examples in the paragraphs below, which are focused on issues relating to housing, but of course, I recognise planning is so much broader than that.

The Government says they “want all communities, families, groups and individuals to have a say in the future of the places where they live”.  Yet the White Paper does not give us that.  In fact, it reduces democracy and citizen input, with residents being excluded from parts of the process or ‘allowed’ to participate at the whim of the Local Authority or the Planning Inspector.  The SoS says “These proposals will help us to build the homes our country needs”, so where is the focus on social housing?  Just stating that the Government supports “inclusive and mixed communities” is not enough.  The White Paper does not demonstrate that it meets the requirements of the Public Sector Equality Duty.  It does not appear to address the needs of the most vulnerable in our society, including those who share protected characteristics, those who are homeless and those care-leavers who need specific support, ie those who are actually suffering as a consequence of the current housing crisis!  The proposals do nothing for those who will NEVER be able to buy their own home (whatever ‘affordable’ housing schemes are considered).  

Having openly acknowledged (White Paper para 5.17) that the current key beneficiaries of planning gain are developers and landowners, the Government suggests that they be offered even more benefits through these reforms.  There is a proposal, for example, that Local Authorities refund application fees to developers if they do not achieve the new timetable (which will be a real challenge because there appears to be a massive overestimate of the benefits of zoning and a significant underestimate of the administrative burden the Government is planning to impose), yet there is NO charge or penalty to developers if they secure planning permission but don’t ever build any houses.  

The Local Government Association reported, earlier this year, that there are over 1m homes with planning permission that have not yet been built.  It is, therefore, not justifiable to claim that the planning system has failed, as suggested in the PM’s foreword (or blame the newts, as he suggested in his speech of 30th June) and whoever wrote the statement that “too often excellence in planning is the exception rather than the rule” is mixing up planning with development.  A big issue throughout the document but understandable, because we actually have a development system, in which providers have so much influence that the needs of citizens and communities can be ignored, leaving the most vulnerable in our society in crisis and artificially increasing both house prices and land values. 

Despite acknowledging (paragraph 40, Changes to the Current Planning System) that “Not all homes that are planned for are built” (rather an understatement), there is not a single proposal to ‘encourage’ developers to build those outstanding homes and accelerate availability of housing.  An impartial review of current issues would have resulted in such suggestions.  It would be very reasonable to make developers accountable for building outstanding schemes and, in adopting such an approach, there would be NO need for Local Authority targets to meet market housing requirements.  Why hasn’t the Government considered this?

Options for such ‘encouragement’ could include removal of planning permission (thereby reducing the value of the land), compulsory purchase and asking SME builders to take forward approved schemes (addressing another commitment in the White Paper), charging developers a fee for each home with planning permission that has not been built (perhaps equivalent to the Council Tax that would have been incurred had the homes been built to a reasonable timetable).

The SoS says ‘We are cutting red tape, but not standards’ – I beg to differ!  The proposed expansion of Permitted Development Rights to larger schemes is outrageous, given the scandal of the “rooms with no windows”  (and the recently reported flats the size of car parking spaces).  This demonstrates that those same organisations, who are failing to deliver approved developments, cannot be trusted to work without mandated standards in all aspects of a scheme.  Who will benefit from those cuts to red tape?  Oh yes, the developers! 

The proposal that communities have only 14 days to provide their representations on these large schemes is contemptible and is NOT compliant with the Government’s own guidelines on consultation.  Who will benefit from the reduction in the time allowed for public comment?  Oh yes, the developers, once again!

The SoS says the proposals will “recreate an ownership society” – where is the evidence that we need to do this (renting can be a lifestyle choice) and why is this the priority?  The people who would like to buy a property may have challenges but are not typically in crisis!  If the Government is honest about its “levelling up” agenda, it will recognise that the mandated targets for market housing should be agreed with developers in relation to those permissions already given.  The ambition to deliver 300,000 dwellings per annum should be reviewed to determine its appropriateness and updated to require (for the next 5 years as a minimum) that at least 60% of those homes be social housing, supported by a new mandated formula to calculate social housing need for each Local Authority area. 

The House of Commons Research Briefing promises improvements to the planning ecosystem, but the reality, set out in the documents, is somewhat different.  Local communities will ONLY have a voice in the aesthetics of the buildings, not in the what, the where and the when of planning in their area.  This is a huge backwards step from what is set out in today’s Statements of Community Involvement.  The elimination of our democratic right to be involved in planning should not be acceptable to anyone, especially not the Members of Parliament, who represent our communities. 

The Green Belt is not protected, as claimed, it is just subject to the current processes.  Important ecological habitats (including that of the globally threatened newt, and, closer to home, the water vole) will no longer be assured of an Environmental Survey to determine the appropriateness of development.  The Government supposedly have an aim to reverse the decline in nature (not just stop it), yet there is nothing in the documents that suggests support for this aspiration (and promising a further consultation at a later date is not helpful).

The TCPA suggest that “around 90% of applications for planning permission are approved in England”.  Yet there is no mention of this statistic in the very misleading statement that “around a third of planning cases that go to appeal are overturned”.  Of course, whatever the number (presumably around 10% of planning applications), two thirds are not overturned!  The author of this document should be thoroughly ashamed!

The proposal about the simpler national levy seems to be aimed at benefiting developers (again)!  There is nothing in the White Paper that “makes it harder for developers to dodge their obligations” as suggested by the PM.  Local Authorities should influence what is needed in their area, scheme viability should be independently assessed and funding for such an important resource as social housing should be specifically reviewed and consulted upon separately as it is clear registered housing providers cannot meet this need alone.

The White Paper seems to be obsessed with speed and beauty rather than with high quality homes (including provision for those in crisis) and, whilst zero-carbon homes are welcome, the plan to allocate £27b of public money to the construction of (unneeded) new roads should be reviewed.  Both the White Paper and that objective need to be re-written to reflect the post-Covid world. 

Some of the other issues that concern me are the lack of involvement of communities and specialists in the development of these proposals and the lack of opportunity to comment on issues such as costs and the future plans for Environmental Surveys. 

It seems “The Government has welcomed contributions from experts, including Savills and Lichfields” but when organisations such as the Local Government Association, the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Institute of British Architects, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and Shelter are raising serious concerns about the White Paper, it is extremely alarming.  The opportunity to create a ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ to support discussions about these reforms was not even considered.  Is there not an understanding of the importance of stakeholder involvement? (and let’s be clear – Government Advisers are not stakeholder representatives but maybe they do know a lot of developers!).

The White Paper says “we will streamline the opportunity for consultation at the planning application stage, because this adds delay to the process and allows a small minority of voices, some from the local area and often some not, to shape outcomes”.  Yet the Government purports to recognise communities as key stakeholders.  If this is the case, those “voices” would be considered essential and it should be remembered that the “small minority of voices” are very welcome to the communities they live in (especially for those vulnerable residents who may be unable to articulate their concerns themselves).  Citizens should not be losing their democratic rights because developers are not building the homes which HAVE been approved and do not want to justify their new plans to residents!  Who benefits from the removal of those “voices”?  Once again, the developer!

It is clear that the White Paper does not propose any new rights for community participation, despite the promise to “increase access and engagement”.  In fact it appears to reduce both rights and opportunities and, whilst digitisation will undoubtedly be welcome by many residents, there are also some who will be excluded by this approach and there is nothing to show how their involvement will be retained. 

There was no opportunity to comment on the Government’s assertion that the “cost of operating the new planning system should be principally funded by the beneficiaries of planning gain – landowners and developers – rather than the national or local taxpayer”.  What does this do to impartiality in the system?  This approach could introduce significant bias as there would almost certainly be a perceived obligation to find in favour of the funder.  Questions should also be asked about why is a mere supplier of a product the key beneficiary of planning gain?

The White Paper states that “Processes for environmental assessment and mitigation need to be quicker”.  This is one of the most concerning parts of the consultation, yet there were no questions to respond to about the Effective Stewardship and Enhancement of our Natural and Historic Environment.  Given the declarations of a Climate Emergency (nationally, regionally and locally), environmental and biodiversity protection has to be one of the most important considerations within the overall ecosystem and safeguards should not be abandoned, condensed or limited by the quest for process speed!  And who will benefit from this introduction of simpler systems?  Yes, it is the developer (again)! 

Will it speed up delivery of development projects – NO because there are no penalties for developers if they never deliver!  And, what about that promise to our children and grandchildren that these “reforms will leave an inheritance of environmental improvement – with environmental assets protected” etc – not a hope, given the way the documents are currently written!

Whilst the Conservative agenda for private sector innovation and investment is well understood, this should not put developers in an exalted position and does not preclude access to democracy or the benefits of citizen leadership.  What we actually need is to move to a true Planning System, one that is community-led and demonstrates full accountability for action.  The Neighbourhood Plans are a great starting point.  Many people have volunteered huge amounts of their own time in the construction of these documents.  It is offensive that the Government has not explicitly acknowledged and demonstrated the value of these contributions in the White Paper. 

Digitisation is a great idea and I support this, but anyone in the business will tell you that you do not automate a bad process.  Residents do not just want transparency through technology – we want a say in what happens in our locality.  With this in mind, communities should be identifying what is needed for their area, working with ecologists and other specialists to assess the suitability of their local environment to meet their plans and leading the process!  Developers may be the source of some of the investment, but they should not be driving, they should be taken on our journeys.

Given the level of influence developers have today, it will take time to move to this approach, but we can start by ensuring they are not given the ability to further dominate the planning system.  The Government should give real power to communities instead.  Yes, they will need support, yes there will be challenges and yes there will be costs associated with this approach, but our communities are our heritage.  They should not be given away to organisations whose focus is on their bottom line.

In summary, quite frankly, the White Paper is a poorly constructed, repetitive document which does not deliver the promised benefits and the Changes to the Planning System document is completely focused on the wrong targets and the expansion of an already discredited initiative.  How does the Government expect to make progress in addressing the housing crisis when they are whipping their public servants, punishing their communities and giving carrots to those organisations that cause the problem?

Whilst I agree, the current planning system has its faults, and I am all for progress and change that is beneficial, I do not think these proposals are well-thought-out, and they are certainly not an improvement on what there is today!  I have previously written to you (for onward transmission to the SoS) about the appointment of Citizens’ Advocates.  I believe they would accelerate change, bring considerable improvements to the planning ecosystem, and put communities at its heart.

It is very sad that the Government has not taken the opportunity of these reforms to enable planning to have a huge and positive impact on our communities, but this is a White Paper and it can be amended.  In the meantime, let’s push those developers to build all the homes they already have approval for. 

Kind regards

Marj Powner (Chair)

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