Skip to main content
Close Menu Open Menu

Zoning, the Policy Exchange and the White Paper

By John Litton QC

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.

Pillar 1

The Planning for the Future white paper’s proposal is for simplified Local Plans to put land in three categories:–

  • Growth Areas – areas suitable for substantial development;
  • Renewal Areas – suitable for some development, in other words, gentle densification and infill;
  • Protected Areas – areas where development is restricted, including Green Belt, National Parks, Areas of Natural Beauty and Conservation Areas

General development management policies would be set nationally, with Local Plans containing “clear rules” with design codes and site and area-specific requirements.

Beyond the examples given of what the Growth Areas and Renewal Areas might include, there is no detail as to how these areas should be identified or how broad/extensive such zones should be.

Where it all started

The genesis for the Pillar 1 proposals is to be found in the Policy Exchange’s document – “Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century” published in January 2020.

In its forward, Prof. Edward Glaeser said:

“Perhaps the most revolutionary idea in this report is that land should be divided into two primary classes, not hundreds of finely tuned zoning areas. One class of land is protected against growth, either for historical or environmental reasons. The other class of land largely permits growth. By eliminating uncertainty about the permitting process, development can become faster and cheaper. If the rules of the game are clear from the beginning, then builders will be able to deliver the housing England needs.”

The Policy Exchange’s proposal was for a binary zonal land use planning system, but whether land should be put into two or three zones does not really matter and there are clues in the Policy Exchange document as to the intended nature and purpose of zoning.

Point 1

The Policy Exchange said that land zoned as “development land” (read Growth Areas) should include existing urban areas and urban extensions, made possible by improved infrastructure, with no reference to what specific land uses are allowed on individual private land plots because 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 permission, recognising that there might be the need to separate some harmful uses.

Thus, it is clear that zones were intended to be broadly drawn with a distinction only being made between urban areas (and extensions to those areas) and non-urban areas.

Point 2

To help define development land the Policy Exchange said that zonal designations should be separate from any concept of ‘need’ and, instead, be dependent on metrics that determine whether land has good access potential, whether new development would cause environmental disturbance and the potential for existing built development to expand.

Point 3

Zones should be updated on an ongoing basis and would need to be periodically reviewed by the Planning Inspectorate. This is particularly important particularly as one of the drivers for Policy Exchange’s proposals was an acknowledgment of the speed of change and the inability of the present planning system to keep up with those changes.

Point 4

The point made about land zoned as “development land” and the need to separate certain harmful uses was rather glibly addressed in one short paragraph which said:-

“These proposed reforms 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 national planning policy and the Local Plan.”

I’m not sure how many quarries there are next to children’s playgrounds and it is not a good example. A better one would have been the juxtaposition of industrial areas and housing or tall towers and heritage assets. 

Many of the Metropolitan Authorities have, in their consultation response to the white paper, made the point that broad zones do not reflect the diversity of their areas, for example Manchester and London, and there is an obvious tension between (1) zoning land in urban areas for Growth where there is intended to be a light touch, rules based approach to development led by the market in terms of what comes forward; and (2) the existence in such areas of conservation areas and multiple listed buildings, which in the white paper should be zoned as Protected Areas.

Point 5

A big difference between the Policy Exchange proposals and the white paper is in relation to Green Belt. In the white paper, Green Belt falls within the “Protected” zone, notwithstanding that the Policy Exchange was highly critical of the economic effects that Green Belt designation has on land supply and, therefore, prices which led it to say that:-

“Green Belt and Open Countryside land use designations should be reviewed to clarify what purpose they are supposed to be serving and whether it is still justified”.


The Policy Exchange saw a binary zonal system, broad allocations and the operation of the market as the answer to the perceived problems with the present planning system. However, the land use complexities of many areas, particularly urban ones, mean that if planning authorities are going to respect the three zones proposed in the white paper, they may end up zoning much smaller parcels of land in a way the Policy Exchange did not intend and, indeed, saw as one of the intrinsic flaws of the existing system.


John Litton QC

John Litton QC was called to the Bar in 1989 and took Silk in 2010. He is a leading silk in the areas of town and country planning, environmental law, highways, compulsory purchase & compensation and administrative law. He also practices in a broad range of civil and commercial litigation matters including complex rating cases.

John regularly appears at public inquiries into development including housing, distribution warehousing, retail (food and non-food), town centre mixed use schemes, healthcare facilities, private householder development, purpose-built student accommodation, hotel development (including in the countryside), hostels, immigration appeal centres, football stadia, and motorway service areas.

Back to top