If You’re Gonna Do It, Do It Right: Final Thoughts On White Paper

Sorry for starting with an earworm.

Despite its passionate and urgent advocacy, George Michael probably didn’t have planning system reform in mind when he wrote I’m Your Man, but that “If You’re Gonna Do It, Do It Right” chorus has certainly been on an internal loop while writing this post.

We finally nearing the 29 October 2020 deadline for consultation responses in relation to the Planning White Paper.

One small benefit of this Covid-19 period has been the extent of on-screen engagement by some of those behind the proposed reforms, and wider webinar discussions, most of them freely available on YouTube. Congratulations to MHCLG for being prepared to engage in this way.

For me the most illuminating sessions have included (to pick a few):

⁃ Christopher Katkowski QC on Have We Got Planning News For You on 7 August 2020 (13,000 views!) and Christopher being interviewed on 19 October 2020 by Steve Quartermain and Nick Kilby (Cratus). In the second interview, drawing on two and a half months of public discussion during the consultation period, Steve is able to home in on a number of the key unresolved issues. (Particular thanks to Chris for the huge amount of work and thinking he has put into these proposals and for being prepared to speak on so many platforms).

⁃ Steve Quartermain’s hour long discussion with the Secretary of State.

⁃ (I’m biased here) a Town/No 5 chambers webinar on the likely practical implications of the reforms and MHCLG’s director of planning Simon Gallagher participation in a Town webinar on 7 October on the proposed Infrastructure Levy.

What about Parliament? Well, there was a Commons debate on 8 October 2020 into the following motion by Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight, Bob Seely:

“I beg to move,

That this House

welcomes the Government’s levelling up agenda and supports appropriate housing development and the Government’s overall housing objectives;

further welcomes the Government’s consultation, Planning for the Future, updated on 6 August 2020, as a chance to reform housing and land use for the public good;

welcomes the Government’s commitment to protect and restore the natural environment and bio-diversity;

and calls on the Government to delay any planned implementation of the changes to the standard method for assessing local housing need proposed by the Government’s consultation, Changes to the Current Planning System, published on 6 August 2020, and Proposal 4 of the Government’s consultation, Planning for the Future, on a standard method for establishing housing requirement, until this House has had the opportunity to hold a debate and meaningful vote on their introduction.”

39 members spoke in the debate – let nobody think that any stage of the proposed reforms will be uncontroversial – many of the members raising individual constituency issues.

The non-binding motion was agreed without a vote, with MHCLG minister Christopher Pincher making assurances in his speech in response that:

“We will reflect carefully on what we have heard and the feedback we receive. As we advance, we will endeavour to keep the House well-informed of these important changes, because make no mistake: they are important. They are what we need to do to deliver 300,000 good-quality new homes a year in the places that need them, and in the long run, they are what we need to do to build back better after covid-19. They are what we need to do to meet the aspirations of the people we serve now and in the generations to come.”

On the same day, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Commons Select Committee launched an inquiry into the future of the planning system in England. The call for evidence has a deadline of 30 October 2020 and invites responses on the following issues:

“ 1 Is the current planning system working as it should do? What changes might need to be made? Are the Government’s proposals the right approach?

2. In seeking to build 300,000 homes a year, is the greatest obstacle the planning system or the subsequent build-out of properties with permission?

3. How can the planning system ensure that buildings are beautiful and fit for purpose?

4. What approach should be used to determine the housing need and requirement of a local authority?

5. What is the best approach to ensure public engagement in the planning system? What role should modern technology and data play in this?

6. How can the planning system ensure adequate and reasonable protection for areas and buildings of environmental, historical, and architectural importance?

7. What changes, if any, are needed to the green belt?

8. What progress has been made since the Committee’s 2018 report on capturing land value and how might the proposals improve outcomes? What further steps might also be needed?”

I’m reluctant to put down here my own concluding thoughts but I supposed they can briefly be summarised as follows:

1. All credit to those who have put so much work into the proposals, and I have no complaint about the objectives set out in the paper. However, the task is too vast to be dealt with as proposed.

2. The so-called white paper falls short of the necessary detail to be any practical account of what changes are proposed. Those behind the proposals admit as much. There are big gaps, which go beyond being details to join the dots but which rather need to be addressed so that there is proof of concept.

3. The next step should be a full white paper, or sequence of white papers (reform of CIL and section 106 for instance is a huge undertaking which needs its own spotlight), developed through more detailed discussion involving a much wider group of (ugh) stakeholders – including wider representation from the development industry, planners (yes, include planners!), local government, communities.

4. If we rush headlong to legislation it will be botched. We know this to be true!

5. The changes are reliant on changes to EIA and SEA procedures, for which we do not yet have any proposals (they are promised “this Autumn”). They need to move forward in tandem. Again, there is not yet any proof of concept. How can the procedures be simplified without watering down protections?

6. On a similar theme, the changes will be facilitated by the local government organisational changes that were to be included in the devolution and local recovery white paper (see my 25 September 2020 blog post). Again, there is merit in proceeding in tandem so that we are clear as to the role for the London Mayor, for combined authorities and indeed for counties (which seem to be featuring again in discussions in the continued absence of any proper regional approach).

7. Some objectives may be able to be achieved by simple changes, for instance introducing model development management policies into the NPPF alongside guidance that local planning authorities should not duplicate these in their individual plans without good reason.

8. The biggest unanswered questions for me are:

⁃ the process by which Government will give each authority the housing number that it must plan for, what proxy there will be for the current duty to co-operate and how the process can be on the one hand swift but on the other hand transparent, fair and open to challenge.

⁃ the practicality of defining all land as opportunity, renewal or protection and particularly: (a) whether outline permission for opportunity areas is achievable as part of the plan process within the timescale and providing a worthwhile level of detail (b) whether an enhanced presumption in favour of the plan for renewal areas will be counter-productive in killing off any development that is not in accordance with the authority’s wishes and (c) what we really mean by protection areas (see Zack Simons’ spot-on 15 October blog post – one in fact of a brilliantly questioning series which deserve detailed answers).

⁃ the proposed infrastructure levy and in particular the realism or otherwise of the “it will be simpler than CIL” mantra.

I hope that we are not proceeding to construction stage with this new planning system, before we have resolved some fundamental structural elements. (Apologies, I know George Michael would have put that better).

Simon Ricketts, 24 October 2020

Personal views, et cetera