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Last week, the House of Commons Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee published its long-awaited report on the Government’s proposed new planning system. Centre for Cities responded to the call for evidence for the Committee’s report last year, and we were delighted to see that our analysis was cited so much by the Committee.
The report notes that the existing system has come under “stinging criticism” and that there is room for improvement, including a review of the green belt. But it is generally quite sceptical about the proposals in the White Paper, especially when it comes to local democracy, and instead advocates a more gradual approach to reforming the existing system.
Centre for Cities has considered the report carefully, but feels that the Committee is too pessimistic about how the reforms would affect local democracy – frontloading community input would ensure that a wider range of voices would be heard, not less. On the other hand, the Committee is too optimistic about change within the existing system – we need an entirely new planning system if we want entirely better results, and just tinkering with the existing system could make things worse.
One of the most important recommendations in the report is that MPs have called for a review to “examine the purpose of the Green Belt, including whether it continues to serve that purpose, how the public understand it, what should be criteria for inclusion, and what additional protections might be appropriate.”
This is not the first time that MPs have called for a review into the green belt – a cross-party campaign organised by Siobhain McDonagh and supported by Centre for Cities called for changes back in 2018. But it is the first time that MPs have responded to a Government proposal for planning reform with a call for green belt reform.
The reason why is the politics of planning have changed, and a new consensus around reform is emerging. As the housing crisis has deepened around expensive cities, and awareness of the deep problems with the existing planning system has increased, that the green belt currently blocks new homes on brownfield sites and adjacent to train stations has become harder to defend. Even the Campaign to Protect Rural England did not mention the green belt in their response to the report last week.
At this rate, green belt reform is now only a matter of time. It may be too much for the Government to get through parliament this year along with the other major changes currently proposed, which should take priority due to the groundwork already laid in the White Paper. But MPs who cite the report approvingly should be expected to echo the call for a review of the green belt. Previous Centre for Cities research (cited by the Committee’s report) has shown how this can be done – 1.6 to 2.1 million climate-friendly homes could be built at suburban densities around stations on lines heading into big city centres.
The Committee’s report is more critical though about other elements of the planning reforms in the White Paper, particularly those which would “frontload” local community input into the creation of the local plan. This would remove local residents’ ability to block new homes nearby by objecting when a development that complies with the local plan is proposed.
The Committee issued strong objections to these proposals, worrying that these were undemocratic. This is understandable. Public trust in the existing planning system is low, and reducing the number of moments at which people can comment could make things worse if done badly.
However, improving local democracy requires greater participation by the wider community, rather than deeper participation by the existing activists. The best evidence we have actually indicates that case-by-case comment and vetoes are undemocratic in this sense, as they systemically advantage privileged members of the community over others. The Neighborhood Defenders literature from the US investigated these mechanisms using a complete record of administrative data in Boston, and proved that attendees at public comment meetings were older, wealthier and more likely to be homeowners than the communities they claimed to speak for.
These results are a feature of the time commitment these case-by-case meetings require, and their hostile atmosphere to new homes. Pro-housing and indifferent majorities in the community, as well as those living elsewhere, go unheard in our system as our public comment mechanisms currently ignore and discourage them.
Moving instead to a new framework of public consultation where local input on the locations and nature of development is frontloaded into the creation of the local plan would instead require a consensus across the entire community. It would improve local democracy by empowering the silent majority of people who support new homes, and make the planning process more certain and trustworthy, and less confrontational and aggressive.
There is also no doubt that the members of the Committee wish to see major improvements to housing outcomes. Whether that is cheaper rents, greater access to homeownership, or higher quality and safer homes, the report shows a clear understanding that decades of poor housing policy and undersupply have failed this country and its cities.
However, the Committee is “unpersuaded” that moving to the entire new approach the White Paper proposes will result in a “quicker, cheaper, and democratic planning system”. The alternatives suggested range from reconsidering the foundations of the White Paper, or keeping lots of the case-by-case decision-making of our existing system in anything new. In effect, it recommends doing what we have always done – tweaks and adjustments aiming for incremental improvements in the current planning system.
This approach will not work because the problem is the planning system itself. The institutional design of our current system – where the granting of planning permissions is discretionary and decided case-by-case – causes the housing shortage, as it imposes a tight and risky bottleneck which reduces the supply of new homes.
We need an entirely new, rules-based system to solve this. That legislators would prefer to tinker with the existing system is understandable, but small changes will only have small effects.
Yet the Committee’s conclusion also introduces the risks of a half-baked planning system. The reason is that now the Government is doing primary legislation debate should consider how the system should work as a whole, as blocking some changes while keeping others may botch the entire reform.
For instance, the Government’s proposals suggest removing case-by-case comment on planning applications, but compensate for that by introducing design codes which the public can provide input on. Doing what the Committee recommends though and instead introducing design codes while also keeping case-by-case comment is the worst of all worlds – it would make the system less coherent and introduce more opportunities to block new homes. Likewise, imposing “detailed plans” on individual growth and renewal areas contradicts their purpose – to simplify the system and make it easier, not harder, to allocate land for new homes.
The Government and Parliament should remain alert to this tinkering trap, as it has crippled planning reform efforts in the UK and also abroad. England’s Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and Ireland’s Planning and Development Act 2000 made both systems worse.
This is not to say that the Government’s proposals should not be criticised. But ideally, critics should present alternative, coherent systems to advance the debate. Treating systemic reform like a “pick ‘n’ mix” of policies is risky and could make things worse, even if the intention behind such suggestions is good. Policymakers should try to make the reforms work as well as they can, rather than tinkering.
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