Topical Four Letter Words Beginning With Z

Aren’t we bored now of Zoom meetings? They are no substitute for the real thing.

But there is another topical Z word. Should we adopt a Zone based approach to development consenting? Again, is this any substitute for the real thing?

The Government seems to have determined that it has a once in a lifetime opportunity, to (according to Robert Jenrick) “rethink planning from first principles” with a shake-up designed to accelerate the process.

The time has come to speed up and simplify this country’s overly bureaucratic planning process,” he said on Wednesday. “This government is thinking boldly and creatively about the planning system to make it fit for the future.” (England’s planning system set for shake-up Financial Times, 10 June 2020).

And you may ask yourself, well

How did I get here?

You may ask yourself

What is that beautiful house?

You may ask yourself

Where does that highway go to?

And you may ask yourself

Am I right? Am I wrong?

And you may say yourself

“My God! What have I done?”

How did we get here?

Go back to the Policy Exchange’s paper Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century (27 January 2020):

“The Government should announce a clean break with the land use planning system introduced in 1947 that largely continues in the same form today. This reform programme should focus on the following issues:

• Ending detailed land use allocations. The planning system should not try to systematically control what specific activity can take place on individual land plots based on fallacious projections of housing and commercial ‘need’. Local planning authorities have proved ineffective and inefficient at micro-managing land markets. In this regard, the supply of new homes, offices and other types of land use should no longer be capped by local planning authorities in local plans or by site allocations.

• Introducing a binary zonal land use planning system. Land should be zoned either as development land, where there is a presumption in favour of new development, or non-development land, where there is not a presumption and minor development is only possible in more restricted circumstances. Land zoned as development land will include existing urban areas and new urban extensions made possible by infrastructure improvements. In this new system:

• Zones should, in general, have no reference to what specific land uses are allowed on individual private land plots. Market conditions should instead determine how urban space is used in the development zone. Land and buildings in the urban area would then be able to change use without requiring the permission of the state (as long as rules on separating certain harmful uses are not broken, as detailed below).

• Zonal designations should be separate from any concept or calculation of ‘need’.

Instead, they should be dependent on metrics that determine whether land has good access potential, whether new development would cause environmental disturbance; and the potential for an existing built development to expand. Zones should be updated an ongoing basis and would need to be periodically reviewed by the Planning Inspectorate.

• These proposals do not negate the need to separate certain harmful uses that have a negative impact on neighbours, for instance a quarry next to a children’s play park. Nor do the proposed reforms negate the need to protect certain uses, for instance for their natural or heritage value. These incompatible and protected uses should be clearly defined in the local plan.”

In February 2020 co-author Jack Airey becomes no 10’s housing and planning special advisor.

Robert Jenrick publishes his pamphlet Planning For The Future (12 March 2020), setting out a range of proposals which are to form the basis of a Planning White Paper, then promised for Spring 2020 but now of course delayed.

The pamphlet picks up on some of the themes of the Policy Exchange work and particularly on the Z word, but in more cautious terms:

“Expand the use of zoning tools to support development – the government will outline further support for local areas to simplify the process of granting planning permission for residential and commercial development through zoning tools, such as Local Development Orders. The government will trial the use of templates for drafting LDOs and other zonal tools to create simpler models and financial incentives to support more effective use. The government has also launched a consultation on a new UK Freeport model, including on how zoning could be better used to support accompanying development.”

(I comment on the proposals in my 21 March 2020 blog post What To Do?).

So what is actually happening? In a House of Lords debate on 8 June 2020, there was this exchange:

Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab) [V]

I declare my interest as noted in the register. Can the Minister confirm the reports across the weekend media that the Government are intending to take planning decisions away from councils and give them to development corporations? This is extremely concerning after recent developments in Tower Hamlets, which resulted in the developer not having to pay between £30 million and £50 million in the community infrastructure levy?

Lord Greenhalgh

The situation at the moment is that there is a planning commission that has started under my right honourable friend Chris Pincher, the planning Minister. I cannot make any further comments about what the noble Baroness has read in the media.”

There is nothing else in the public domain about this “planning commission”, although of course, as referred to in this exchange, there has been much speculation in the media. Back to that 10 June FT piece:

“Downing Street has set up an advisory panel that includes Bridget Rosewell, the national infrastructure commissioner who recently headed a review into accelerating planning appeal inquiries, property developer Sir Stuart Lipton and barrister Christopher Katkowski.

The other members are Nicholas Boys Smith, founder of Create Streets, co-chair of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, and Miles Gibson, head of UK research at advisory group CBRE.”

The piece speculates:

“Ministers hope that the reforms can be agreed in time for a wider economic announcement in July by Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, which will also include extra infrastructure spending.”

If we are talking about fundamental changes to the planning system, of course reforms cannot be “agreed” in time for July. But might we expect this delayed Planning White Paper by then? I suspect that separately and ahead of the white paper we will see legislation in relation to shorter-term responses to the current crisis, including the extension of planning permission time limits and changes to PD rights.

In the meantime, the think tank onslaught continues. The prompt for the 10 June FT piece was the publication by the Policy Exchange of a series of essays: Planning Anew: A collection of essays on reforming the planning system for the 21st century. There are pieces by Bridget Rosewell CBE, Professor Robert Adam, Charles Dugdale, Warwick Lightfoot, David Rudlin, John Myers, Jamie Ratcliff, Reuben Young, Dr Sue Chadwick, William Nicolle and Benedict McAleenan.

The essays are diffuse in their themes and I would be wary of drawing too much from them.

There are some eye-catching comments from Bridget Rosewell:

“It’s clear that we can’t stop humans planning, or probably being planners. But we must abolish the Plan as a shibboleth, a straitjacket and an industry”

“Abolishing the current planning edifice does not remove the need for frameworks for permissions. Tensions still exist and must be resolved. My review of Planning Inquiries showed that they could be done twice as fast just by applying sensible rules, most of which already existed, to manage the process. Other planning disputes are often also resolvable without having a complicated set of rules including local plan preparation and examinations in public.”

David Rudlin’s contribution, News from Nowhere: the future of planning and cities, addresses zoning full-on. It is a fantasy piece, looking back from a 2050 utopia that had been delivered in part by a change to a zoning system in 2020. To give you a flavour:

“Clara and William transferred to a water taxi, heading down the Irwell, canyoned by the towers of Manchester and Salford that William remembered being thrown-up in a brief moment of madness in the late 2010s. As they passed into the Ship Canal, Clara explained that the new spatial planning system had allowed for the much more balanced growth of the conurbation. The inner areas of Manchester and Salford had been developed with mid-density neighbourhoods of housing, apartments and workspace resembling the cities of continental Europe. Higher density nodes, like those he had seen from the train, had been promoted around transport interchanges and local centres. There were still plenty of suburbs, of course, like the one where Clara lived with her family that they would visit later, but the overall structure of the conurbation made much more sense and was far more sustainable.

This had happened as a result of the new planning structure introduced in 2020. It had been based on a three tier system that had finally given some clarity to the way that the country had been planned, as well as rejuvenated the role and status of planners like Clara. The top tier was a National Spatial Plan, the middle was City Region / County Spatial strategies and the third was district-level zonal coding plans, but more of that in a moment”

The piece (and indeed the interesting debate about it when David Rudlin guested on Have We Got Planning News For You on 18 June 2020) illustrates the problem with the current debate, because surely what is contemplated (and flagged in March by Robert Jenrick), whilst no doubt “radical”, is not an across-the-board move to a system of comprehensive zoning plans – and so there is the risk that we all have a theoretical debate in one side of the room and fail to engage with the more practical reality that may be emerging across the way. I sensed the same impractical utopianism in another think tank piece published this week: Planning for the future: How flexible zoning will end the housing crisis (Anthony Breach, Centre for Cities, 19 June 2020).

Because the real debate is not a straight-forward one. How can we focus so much on the Z word before considering:

⁃ what are the Government’s policy objectives, and how does it prioritise as between them?

⁃ in which ways does the Town and Country Planning Act system play its part in meeting those objectives?

⁃ in what ways can the operation of the existing system be improved and in what ways are changes required, so as not just to reflect current policy objectives but as a resilient engine to be applied towards whatever may be future political priorities? Or is the idea to lock the engine into a specific political direction?

⁃ how do we guard against unintended consequences and against new blockages forming, if for instance the stress point between the potential for profit and the restriction on certain forms of development moves exclusively to the process of arriving at the zoning plan or scheme? That stress point is where there is the potential for delay, political difficulties and legal challenge. (In our present system of course we have multiple stress points!).

⁃ to what extent would a form of zoning (ie a greater level of predictability being given via the rule-setting and policy-forming stages in return for, at the project stage, less flexibility and less room for political discretion) be better or worse than the current system at achieving those policy objectives?

It’s difficult because those policy objectives will surely not just not include the Covid-accentuated need for housing and economic activity, but the need for communities to continue to have an appropriate level of influence over outcomes and the need not to rule out, through rigid prescription, unexpected forms of development which may be in the public interest but simply not anticipated by the plan?

For a really good, detailed analysis of zoning, different models, the pros and cons and potential application to our English system I recommend Jennie Baker’s blog post Should zoning be introduced in England? (Lichfields, 14 May 2018). I also strongly recommend that you read Zack Simons’s #planoraks blog post Welcome to Euclid! (16 June 2020), which, aside from examining the landmark 1926 US Supreme Court case on zoning, Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co, pulls us back to the guidance that the Planning Advisory Service have already published on preparing Local Development Orders, surely one of the prime mechanisms within our existing system for taking a more zoning-based approach (as is specifically mentioned in that passage from Planning For The Future).

Personally speaking, surely there are also two other opportunities to expand the use of existing mechanisms, so as to move more towards what might be termed a zoning-based approach to planning, if this what is required.

First, there is the potential to expand the use of the permission in principle route, introduced in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 but currently far too narrow in its scope. What about building on the existing regime by placing an enforceable duty on LPAs to identify land that is appropriate for permission in principle specifying the location, land use and development parameters? As suggested in a paper by Field, Somerville and Bischoff, Permission in Principle under the Housing and Planning Act 2016: Considering an Australian Approach [2017] JPL 338, such ‘zoning’ overlay permissions in principle could either be promoted by local planning authorities as part of their local plan/ separate mini-development plans, by neighbourhoods through neighbourhood plans or alternatively requested by landowners/ promoters if certain defined criteria are met.

Secondly, the whole Use Classes Order/General Permitted Development Order system is already a form of zoning. Any further liberalisation in relation to, for instance, “high street” uses, is utilising an existing form of zoning. It might be said that recent problems in relation to permitted development have been as a result of the GPDO not being sufficiently prescriptive in relation to building specifications (or perhaps the lack of sufficient protections by way of the Building Regulations) and as a result of the ability to dodge affordable housing or other social infrastructure requirements, rather than through any more fundamental flaw in the basic concept.

As we try to make sense of all this, I have two final suggestions:

My firm is co-hosting with Landmark Chambers a, yes, Zoom, webinar panel discussion on these very issues at 5pm on 23 June 2020. I am chairing the panel which comprises Bridget Rosewell, Sir Stuart Lipton, Steve Quartermain, John Litton QC, Charlie Banner QC and my Town partner Duncan Field. We have had over 800 registrations so far – I am not the only one focused on the Z word it seems – but you can still register for free here.

Alternatively, if you need some fresh air after all this, there is another topical four letter word beginning with Z. Zoos are now open.

Simon Ricketts, 19 June 2020

Personal views, et cetera

Blue Christmas

Duncan Field, Victoria McKeegan and I were speculating in our 16 December 2019 planorama vlog as to what the new Government’s legislative programme and policy priorities are likely to be in relation to planning, infrastructure and the environment

We now have the blueprint, in the form of the Queen’s Speech on 19 December 2019 and particularly the 151 pages of background notes published the same day.

There is going to be an “ambitious” planning white paper in due course, but what is promised in the meantime in this very blue paper that these notes represent? The government has little excuse not to deliver on what it has set out, given the size of its majority. The most relevant references are as follows:

Housing (pages 48 to 50):

My government will take steps to support home ownership, including by making homes available at a discount for local first-time buyers.”

The Government will support people to realise the dream of homeownership. One of the biggest divides in our country is between those who can afford their own home and those who cannot.

The Government will shortly launch a consultation on First Homes. This will provide homes for local people and key workers at a discount of at least 30 per cent – saving them tens of thousands of pounds.

The discount on First Homes will be secured through a covenant. This means these homes will remain discounted in perpetuity, supporting people now and in the future who aspire to own a home of their own.

The Government will also renew the Affordable Homes Programme, building hundreds of thousands of new homes for a range of people in different places. This will help us prevent people from falling into homelessness while also supporting further people into homeownership.

We will introduce a new, reformed Shared Ownership model, making buying a share of a home fairer and more transparent. This new model will be simpler to understand and better able shared owners to buy more of their property and eventually reach full ownership.

To deliver on the homes this country needs, the Government is committed to building at least a million more homes over this Parliament. In the coming months we will set out further steps to achieve this, including an ambitious Planning White Paper and funding for critical infrastructure.

The Planning White Paper will make the planning process clearer, more accessible and more certain for all users, including homeowners and small businesses. It will also address resourcing and performance in Planning Departments.

The new £10bn Single Housing Infrastructure fund will provide the roads, schools and GP surgeries needed to support new homes. Alongside First Homes, this will ensure local people truly benefit from house building in their area and build support for new developments

To help those who rent, the Government will build a rental system that is fit for the modern day – supporting landlords to provide high quality homes while protecting tenants. The Government’s Better Deal for Renters will fulfil our manifesto commitments to abolish ‘no fault’ evictions and to introduce lifetime deposits, alongside further reforms to strengthen the sector for years to come.

The Government is taking forward a comprehensive programme of reform to end unfair practices in the leasehold market. This includes working with the Law Commission to make buying a freehold or extending a lease easier, quicker and more cost effective – and to reinvigorate commonhold and Right to Manage.

The Government will ensure that if a new home can be sold as freehold, then it will be. We will get rid of unnecessary ground rents on new leases and give new rights to homeowners to challenge unfair charges. The Government will also close legal loopholes to prevent unfair evictions and make it faster and cheaper to sell a leasehold home.

For those in the social rented sector, we will bring forward a Social Housing White Paper which will set out further measures to empower tenants and support the continued supply of social homes. This will include measures to provide greater redress, better regulation and improve the quality of social housing.

This Government has committed to end rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament. The Government will continue to invest in key rough sleeping interventions, building on the progress that we made last year in reducing rough sleeping numbers. The Government will also continue to support those at risk of homelessness and rough sleeping through the continued enforcement of the Homelessness Reduction Act.

Building Safety Bill (pages 51 to 53):

New measures will be brought forward…to improve building safety.

An enhanced safety framework for high-rise residential buildings, taking forward the recommendations from Dame Judith Hackitt’s independent review of building safety, and in some areas going further by:

Providing clearer accountability and stronger duties for those responsible for the safety of high-rise buildings throughout the building’s design, construction and occupation, with clear competence requirements to maintain high standards.

Giving residents a stronger voice in the system, ensuring their concerns are never ignored and they fully understand how they can contribute to maintaining safety in their buildings.

Strengthening enforcement and sanctions to deter non-compliance with the new regime, hold the right people to account when mistakes are made and ensure they are not repeated.

Developing a new stronger and clearer framework to provide national oversight of construction products, to ensure all products meet high performance standards.

Developing a new system to oversee the whole built environment, with local enforcement agencies and national regulators working together to ensure that the safety of all buildings is improved.

We will also legislate to require that developers of new build homes must belong to a New Homes Ombudsman.

Fire Safety Bill (pages 54 to 55):

New measures will be brought forward…to improve building safety.”

Clarifying that the scope of the Fire Safety Order includes the external walls of the building, including cladding, and fire doors for domestic premises of multiple occupancy.

Strengthening the relevant enforcement powers to hold building owners and managers to account.

Providing a transitional period for building owners and managers (the “responsible person”) and Fire and Rescue Services to put in place the infrastructure for these changes.”

National Infrastructure Strategy (pages 90 to 91):

My government will prioritise investment in infrastructure…”

The National Infrastructure Strategy will be published alongside the first Budget, and will set out further details of the Government’s plan to invest £100 billion to transform the UK’s infrastructure.

The Strategy will set out the Government’s long-term ambitions across all areas of economic infrastructure including transport, local growth, decarbonisation, digital infrastructure, infrastructure finance and delivery.

The Strategy will have two key aims:

To unleash Britain’s potential by levelling up and connecting every part of the country. Prosperity will be shared across all of the UK, and long- standing economic challenges addressed, through responsible and prudent investment in the infrastructure.

To address the critical challenges posed by climate change and build on the UK’s world-leading commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

The Strategy will also provide the Government’s formal response to the National Infrastructure Commission’s 2018 National Infrastructure Assessment, which made a series of independent recommendations to government across all sectors of economic infrastructure (transport, energy, digital, waste, water and flood management).”

Rail reform and High Speed Rail 2 (West Midlands – Crewe) Bill (pages 101 to 103)

Last year the Government launched a ‘root and branch’ review of the railways led by Keith Williams. The Review is the first comprehensive assessment of the rail system in a generation and is tasked with making ambitious proposals to reform the rail industry.

The Review is focused on reforms that will put passengers at the heart of the railway, provide value for taxpayers and deliver economic, social and environmental benefits across Britain.

The Government will publish a White Paper informed by the recommendations next year. Among other things, this will end the complicated franchising model to create a simpler, more effective system.

The Government has also committed to a number of major investments in the railway, including:

o Midlands Rail Hub, to improve services around Birmingham and throughout the West and East Midlands;

o Northern Powerhouse Rail;

o Reopening a number of the lines and stations closed under the

Beeching cuts in the 1960s; and,

o Significant upgrades to urban commuter and regional services outside London.

Separate to the wider review of the railway system, the Government awaits the review, of the High Speed Two (HS2) network led by Doug Oakervee which is looking at whether and how to proceed with HS2, including the benefits and impacts; affordability and efficiency; deliverability; and scope and phasing, including its relationship with Northern Powerhouse Rail.

Without prejudice to the Oakervee Review’s findings and any Government decisions that follow, it is expected that the High Speed Rail (West Midlands – Crewe) Bill will be revived in this Parliament. The Bill was first introduced in Parliament in July 2017 and will enable Phase 2a of HS2. The Bill passed through the House of Commons and had completed Second Reading in the House of Lords before the dissolution of the previous Parliament. Following revival it would begin its next stages in the House of Lords.

English Devolution (pages 109 to 110):

My government…will give communities more control over how investment is spent so that they can decide what is best for them.”

We are committed to levelling up powers and investment in the regions across England and allowing each part of the country to decide its own destiny.

This means proposals to transform this country with better infrastructure, better education, and better technology.

We will publish a White Paper setting out our strategy to unleash the potential of our regions, which will include plans for spending and local growth funding.

It will provide further information on our plans for full devolution across England, levelling up powers between Mayoral Combined Authorities, increasing the number of mayors and doing more devolution deals.

These increased powers and funding will mean more local democratic responsibility and accountability.

We remain committed to the Northern Powerhouse, Midlands Engine, and Western Gateway strategies.

Business rates (page 111):

To support business, my government will…bring forward changes to business rates.

The Government is committed to conducting a fundamental review of business rates.

The Government recognises the role of business rates as a source of local authority income and will consider input from the sector as part of the review of business rates. Further details on the review will be announced.

We are committed to increasing the retail discount from one-third to 50 per cent, extending that discount to cinemas and music venues, extending the duration of the local newspapers discount, and introducing an additional discount for pubs.

We will also progress legislation to bring forward the next business rates revaluation by one year from 2022 to 2021 and move business rates revaluations from a five-yearly cycle to a three-yearly cycle. This will allow the Government to press ahead with delivering an important reform that has been strongly welcomed by business.

More frequent revaluations will ensure that business rates bills are more up- to-date reflecting properties’ current rental values. Moving to three-yearly revaluation will make the system more responsive to changing economic conditions.

Environment Bill (pages 112 to 114):

To protect and improve the environment for future generations, a bill will enshrine in law environmental principles and legally-binding targets, including for air quality. It will also ban the export of polluting plastic waste to countries outside the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and establish a new, world-leading independent regulator in statute.

Establishing new long term domestic environmental governance based on: environmental principles; a comprehensive framework for legally-binding targets, a long term plan to deliver environmental improvements; and the new Office for Environmental Protection.

Improving air quality by setting an ambitious legally-binding target to reduce fine particulate matter (PM2.5), the most damaging pollutant to human health. The Bill also increases local powers to address sources of air pollution and brings forward powers for the Government to mandate recalls of vehicles when they do not meet legal emission standards.

Protecting nature by mandating ‘biodiversity net gain’ into the planning system, ensuring new houses aren’t built at the expense of nature and delivering thriving natural spaces for communities. We will improve protection for our natural habitats through Local Nature Recovery Strategies and give communities a greater say in the protection of local trees.

Preserving our resources by minimising waste, promoting resource efficiency and moving towards a circular economy. These measures include extended producer responsibility, a consistent approach to recycling, tackling waste crime, introducing deposit return schemes, and more effective litter enforcement. We will also ban the export of polluting plastic waste to non- OECD countries, consulting with industry, NGOs, and local councils on the date by which this should be achieved.

Introducing charges for specified single use plastic items. This will build on the success of the carrier bag charge and incentivise consumers to choose more sustainable alternatives.

Managing water sustainably through more effective legislation to secure long- term, resilient water and wastewater services. This will include powers to direct water companies to work together to meet current and future demand for water, making planning more robust, and ensuring we are better able to maintain water supplies.

Climate change (pages 115 to 118):

My government will continue to take steps to meet the world-leading target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It will continue to lead the way in tackling global climate change, hosting the COP26 Summit in 2020.”

We will build on our progress with an ambitious programme of policy and investment, with our first Budget prioritising the environment. This will help deliver the green infrastructure needed to improve lives and achieve Net Zero, including by investing in carbon capture, offshore wind, nuclear energy, and electric vehicle infrastructure so that individuals are always within 30 miles of a chargepoint. We will make sure we help lower energy bills investing in the energy efficiency of homes, schools and hospitals. And away from home, we will use our £1 billion Ayrton Fund to develop affordable clean energy for developing countries.

The government will continue to use our position as a global leader in this area by hosting the UN Climate Change Summit in Glasgow in 2020 (COP26). We will ask our partners to match the UK’s ambition.

With a focus on nature based solutions at our upcoming COP summit, at home we will be substantially increasing our tree-planting commitment and creating a £640 million new Nature for Climate fund.

Our natural environment is one of our greatest assets, and can play a crucial role in the fight against climate change. This government will:

introduce a landmark Environment Bill – the first one in twenty years – that will create an ambitious environmental governance framework for post Brexit, as well as banning the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries;

establish a new £500 million Blue Planet Fund to help protect our oceans from plastic pollution, warming sea temperatures and overfishing;

lead diplomatic efforts to protect 30 per cent of the world’s oceans by 2030; and,

in our trade negotiations, never compromise on our high environmental protection

We will also ensure that we are protecting our citizens by investing £4 billion in flood defences and lowering energy bills by investing £9.2 billion in the energy efficiency of homes, schools and hospitals.

We will increase our ambition on offshore wind to 40GW by 2030, and enable new floating turbines.

We will support decarbonisation of industry and power by investing £800 million to build the first fully deployed carbon capture storage cluster by the mid-2020s; and £500 million to help energy-intensive industries move to low-carbon techniques.

Constitution and democracy (pages 126 to 127):

A Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission will be established. Work will be taken forward to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.”

Setting up a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission that will:

Examine the broader aspects of the constitution in depth and develop proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates. Careful consideration is needed on the composition and focus of the Commission. Further announcements shall be made in due course.

It’s a blue, blue, blue, blue Christmas.

The usual askew perspectives and commentary will continue here in 2020.

Simon Ricketts, 21 December 2019

Personal views, et cetera