A more liberal planning system in England will have an effect across the UK and the devolved administrations should respond accordingly.
The UK Government has launched major reforms for the planning system – but only within England. These reforms, which will divide all land in England into three zones (growth, renewal, and protected) will make housing supply much more responsive to local demand. But what does this mean for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland?
Although the planning systems of the devolved nations and Republic of Ireland have a separate legal basis to the planning system in England, their technical designs are still very close to the existing system in England. They are still highly discretionary, as decisions to grant planning permission are frequently made case-by-case.
This technical similarity to planning in England remains despite various small reforms to these systems, such as those in Scotland. Ultimately they still have “English-style” planning systems, especially when compared internationally.
Housing conditions across the Celtic nations vary between and within them. Scotland has relatively affordable housing outside of Edinburgh – in Glasgow, the average house costs 5.8 times average local incomes, while they cost 8.2 times local incomes in Edinburgh. Wales is similar – housing is less affordable in Cardiff than it is in Edinburgh, but Swansea and Newport are much less expensive. In Northern Ireland, housing is relatively more affordable in general.
These outcomes reflect the varying performance of local economies within the devolved nations. It is the same pattern as can be seen in England – housing is much more affordable in Blackburn than it is in in Brighton, where the average home cost 13.5 times average incomes.
This is because the housing crisis in cities across the UK is caused by how the discretionary planning system rations development and causes mismatches between the local supply of housing and local demand. This causes housing shortages in the most expensive and high-demand cities, such as Bournemouth, Cardiff, and Edinburgh.
Conversely, Blackpool, Dundee, and Swansea are all in the same boat – their housing is relatively affordable due to their weak labour markets and relatively low demand for housing.
Even in the most expensive cities in the devolved nations, no city has a housing crisis as bad as that in the most unaffordable English cities such as Oxford, London, or Bristol. But their root problem is the same – and the solution is as well. Ultimately, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are going to have to get to grips with their planning regimes if they are to tackle the housing problems they face and improve local and national economic growth.
That does not have to mean copying the English reforms outright. There is always scope for experimentation and learning from other countries. But it does entail using the evidence on how discretionary, case-by-case decision making rations land and creates housing shortages to shape reform.
Zoning systems such as those in the rest of Europe and in Japan, where proposals which comply with the zoning and the buildings regulations legally must be granted planning permission would be a big improvement over the current systems in the devolved nations. In any new system, there would need to be an important role for the devolved governments as referees of their planning systems.
Ireland’s experience, where a zoning replacement to an English-style planning system in the early 2000s was botched and combined the worst elements of both, should be avoided. That Ireland despite its economic prosperity experiences a sharp housing crisis, particularly in Dublin, is a warning that if the devolved nations do experience rapid economic growth without changing their planning systems, they are building up problems for the future.
The UK government’s reforms to England’s planning system means that English cities will no longer experience rationing of new homes. But it will remain a problem in the devolved nations.. If the devolved nations also want to improve their cities’ economic performance while keeping housing affordable, planning reform is not just what they need, but a tool which they already have and can use.
The worst possible outcome for the devolved nations is if they end up keeping English-style discretionary planning solely because England is finally reforming its own system. Policymakers in the devolved nations and Ireland need to anticipate the scale of the changes England is about to experience, and respond with bold reforms of their own.
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Refreshing to have this perspective on the national picture of the reforms. Thank you. Personally, I haven’t noticed this point made in the main media outlets yet.
Well done to Mr. Breach for writing an article suggesting the devolved nations reform their planning systems and then not providing a single good reason for doing so in the article.
England seems to be getting a lot wrong compared to its devolved counterparts in every area of public policy this day and age. Don’t you wonder why Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish policymakers/planners who know far more about planning than yourself aren’t clamouring for a zonal system?