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Planning reform: the “heart” of the Government’s levelling up agenda?

Pictured from left to right: Andrew Forth (RIBA), Paul Nash (CIOB), Charlotte Neal (RICS), Charlotte Gill (ConservativeHome), Chris Pincher MP (Housing Minister), Dr Wei Yang (RTPI)

Chartered Institute of Building

5 min read Partner content

At this year’s Conservative Party Conference, the Chartered Institute of Building joined up with partners ConservativeHome, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Royal Town Planning Institute to host a far-reaching fringe event discussion on how planning reform can deliver great homes and connected communities.

Speaking at the outset of the conversation chaired by Charlotte Gill from ConservativeHome, the Housing Minister, Chris Pincher, stressed that planning reform is at the “heart” of the Government’s levelling up agenda, with the events of the past 18-months putting into focus the “importance that home plays in people’s lives”.

Andrew Forth from RIBA echoed the sentiment, saying the UK had an “opportunity to take stock of where we sit” following the pandemic, while Dr Wei Yang from the RTPI said now was the time to consider the “why”, “how” and “what” of the planning process.

There was a clear consensus among the panel that the key to building back better in this industry was to improve the way the planning system currently works. Pincher argued that, while good progress has been made on delivering planning reform and housing delivery, it is “clear that we need to do more”, with the current system “too slow” and in need of a “refresh”. Forth went further saying that “pretty much everyone is let down” by the way it currently works. During his opening address Forth added that “locals don’t have faith in the planning system", saying: "they have started worrying is it safe [their homes]. That whole crisis around building safety is something we all need to tackle as an industry.”

Echoing the sentiment on the planning system, Past President of the CIOB, Paul Nash, said that decisions at all stages of the development process are “taking far too long” and that the way the system is currently operating presents a “threat” to Government delivery targets. He added that in his view the current issues with the system are predicated on a “lack of resources” with the need for a “clear, comprehensive resourcing plan” for local authorities which “meet the needs of industry and of society”.

Resourcing was a theme also touched upon by Yang, who noted that only around £1.50 per person is invested in the planning system each year. Yang argued during the event that the planning system should be considered in a similar way to public health as an essential service, encouraging increased investment and touting digitisation in local authorities as one potential a game changer when it comes to decision making.

For panellist Charlotte Neal from RICS, the current issue with the system comes down to a lack of “clarity from the process” with the need to add more “clarity”, “certainty” and “speed” for developers and local authorities. She said that too many applicants seek planning permission without knowing what the end outcome is likely to be and that current problems could be rectified by encouraging more engagement with local communities about “what is needed and what they want”.

She noted that there is a need to ensure that the benefits of development for everyone are clearly conveyed. Equally, Forth said we need to make clearer what the consequences of a lack of development can mean. There were multiple ways discussed about how to increase the level of community engagement.

A more contentious issue among the panel was the role of permitted development rights, which currently allow former office blocks to be converted into residential homes via a more streamlined approval process. Nash said that “without sufficient controls in place, PDR can lead to poor quality homes” and that there must be more defined minimum standards so that quality is not sacrificed on the road to achieving housing targets. While Pincher defended the Government’s use of permitted development rights to drive an uptick of housing numbers, he conceded that it had required “tweaks” to ensure natural light in all habitable rooms and that units meet minimum space standards.

It’s clear that an effective planning system is at the very core of what levelling up should be about

Modern methods of construction were considered as a possible solution when it comes to balancing quantity and quality of homes, although Nash recognised that they are “not the panacea that it is often promoted as”.

Equally, green belt development was a lively aspect of the discussion. Across the panel, it was clear that there was agreement that developing brownfield land should be a priority. On the topic, Pincher held firm on Government policy that brownfield development should “come first”. There was then discussion about promoting development on low quality green belt as a secondary option, with Forth and Nash noting that there are currently designated green belt areas which fall short of the amenity standard that should be expected. Meanwhile, Yang stated that we should encourage bringing more green space into urban areas. 

Throughout the debate, there were references to countries around the world that the UK could look to for best practice on planning reform. Examples ranged from Japan, which has an oversupply of homes, to the USA, which promotes self-build opportunities, to Singapore, which has been effective in promoting digitisation.

Ultimately, Pincher argued that “we need to provide more homes so that people have the opportunity to own them if they wish”. Regardless of the intricacies behind how this is achieved or where we look to for inspiration, it’s clear that an effective planning system is at the very core of what levelling up should be about so that everyone across the UK has access to quality, affordable housing.

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