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Is there anything good in the white paper?

By Josephine Ellis

The RTPI aims to promote a wide variety of views in its blog section. The views expressed by authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the RTPI.

What is the purpose of the planning system? The government has a simple answer: to provide more homes for sale. From the first paragraph of the Planning for the Future white paper, the merits of home ownership are extolled and other land-uses, or planning considerations, are barely mentioned.

Now you might be thinking that providing market housing is one of the purposes of planning. But I believe you are wrong. For one thing, if the system didn’t exist at all, dwellings would still be built. Secondly, the planning system, by itself, doesn’t cause anything to be built, for two good reasons: it hasn’t got any money to pay for construction, and it hasn’t got any power to make people build. Like the criminal law, its power is proscriptive, rather than prescriptive. The planning system doesn’t “deliver” houses any more than the police “deliver” sandwich-selling, or train-driving, or any other legally-blameless activity.

(Actually, I have my doubts about whether government, as a whole, should take an interest in providing market housing. Of course government should care whether people have access to decent accommodation. But there’s no moral reason why it should put time and effort into getting people to invest in private property. )

So planning operates by resisting bad, or inappropriate, development – thereby, in theory at least, ensuring that what actually gets built is good development.

But what is good development? For me, it’s development that helps to create, or protect, good places.
Good places are functional: well-connected communities where everyone has access to the facilities and services they need. They are fair: providing decent housing and opportunities to all; democratic: involving people in decisions that affect them; prosperous; and above all, environmentally sustainable: protecting the natural and built environment, and limiting the causes and effects of climate change.

The white paper’s proposals militate against all of the above, for the following reasons:

Functional: a laissez-faire environment in which most developments are permitted in principle provided they fall within broad “renewal” or “growth” zones prevents local authorities from directing development around transport routes and hubs, ensuring that new and existing residents live in 15-minute cities, or safeguarding land for infrastructure, schools, retail or employment.

Fair: access to housing is one of the greatest sources of unfairness across age groups, and the proposals in the white paper would make matters worse. Under the proposed system, 30,000 fewer affordable homes would have been built over the past five yearsi. The argument that this would be made up for by increased supply in a laxer planning system is nonsense. 90% of all planning applications are granted, and developers currently have permission for a million dwellings across the countryii; 40% of homes already granted permission go unbuilt. iii The private housebuilding industry has no incentive to bring down the prices of housing, and so it doesn’t.

At the same time, the sort of low-density, car-dependent, carbon-hungry development that emerges from laissez-faire planning is fundamentally unjust: it discriminates against people who can’t drive, and – by virtue of its environmental impact – against the younger generation, who will have to live in the world that we’re now creating.

Prosperity: the proposed system is good for helping house builders make money, but offers little for any other sector of the economy; nor does it stop wealth from being concentrated in a few hands. Arguably, nothing in the white paper would stop a developer from buying up an industrial estate, market or shopping street full of small businesses, knocking it all down and replacing it with blocks of flats. And the continued focus on the private property market will exacerbate the growing generational and class divide between those that have property, and those who do not.

Democratic: when residents no longer have a mechanism for objecting to planning proposals, and their elected representatives are no longer able to resist them, people are, in one sense, no longer participants in their own home towns. As we all know, few people engage with planning at the plan-making stage. And the proposals in the white paper do not give people the option of a nuanced and locationally-sensitive system. A person who has no objection to her local shopping street being designated a “renewal” area might be horrified to hear that a drive-in takeaway is to be constructed there.

Environmentally sustainable: this is the greatest, and most culpable, omission in the proposals. There is no requirement for dwellings to be zero-carbon – which, remember, they should have been since 2016; they are to be “zero-carbon ready”, that is, capable of retrofitting. But even then, not until 2025. There is no mention of planning for sustainable transport, or of the impact that allocating a deliberately excessive amount of land for development might have upon habitat protection and the carbon-efficiency of the built form.

Is there anything good in the white paper? Well, Design Codes are a good thing, as is the use of more digital technology in planning. But if you believe that government can come up with an IT system that can competently and fairly determine applications against objective and subjective criteria, I’ve one word to say to you: “Excel”.

The climate crisis, the housing crisis, and the impact of Covid and Brexit will continue to challenge the natural and built environment. We can rise to that challenge; or, as the government would probably prefer, we can stand aside and let the worst happen.





Jo Ellis

Jo Ellis was born in 1976 in Carlisle. After working for Newcastle City Council, ONE North East and Durham County Council, she established Blue Kayak Planning in 2015, to focus on urbanism, sustainable transport and the interaction between planning and communities. She also works for Northumbria University, researching patterns of change in commercial property.

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