Replacing the current system with a US-style ‘zonal’ one would have far-reaching consequences. Joey Gardiner weighs up the costs and the possible benefits

Homes in England

Imagine a planning system in which you, as developer, know you are going to get permission from the outset and what standards you will be required to build to. A system where pesky councillors cannot invent reasons to say no to your scheme just because they havve got a big postbag from a well-organised local campaign group. Sounds like a dream, right?

This is the prospect floated by advisors circling the prime minister at the moment, who are – by many accounts – making the case for a move away from the current plan-led system and replacing it with a US-style “zonal” system. Rather than the current system where every application is decided by locally elected councillors even when sites are allocated in a local plan, a zonal system allocates specific areas for different types of development and sets up technical policies controlling what type and quantum of development can happen where.

What seems like a dream could easily turn out to be a mirage

So if your scheme meets the technical criteria for the zone in question, then you get permission to build it – end of. No planning committees, and far less community involvement – at least in individual applications. At first glance, from a developer point of view, it makes our current system sound like an Orwellian nightmare by comparison.

A radical break from the post-war planning settlement?

As a result there are many getting very excited about the noises coming out of Downing Street, where Boris Johnson is promising to rip up the post-war planning settlement that effectively created the system we know today. While the current system has always, in practice, been a compromise with the market forces driving property development, free market advocates hate the explicit socialism at the heart of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act – the nationalisation of development rights. Given the current Conservative majority, many see an opportunity now for a radical break with the past.

But before people get too excited, developers need to be realistic about the likelihood of such a change and what it would entail if it did happen. What seems like a dream could easily turn out to be a mirage.

Changes to permitted development rights

And do not get carried away by what has already been announced – effectively a raft of new permitted development rights (PDR). While the original office-to-residential PDR had a profound impact, spawning a whole new industry, the signs are that the latest PDRs will be so laden with obligations to consider a wide array of traditional planning concerns, that they will not confer the benefit to developers of the original simple right. And rightly so, in many people’s view, since the original right ended up seeing homes built without windows, with evidence suggesting that quality has been demonstrably poorer. It is hard to imagine spending lockdown in one.

We have only seen the detail so far on one of the new PDRs, the upward extension of purpose built flat blocks, but it is fair to say this it not straightforward and has limited applicability. Some developers will benefit, no doubt, but what this does not amount to is a radical reform of the system.

What a zonal planning systems could mean

And in terms of the broader move to a zonal system, it is still far from clear what will be proposed. At the very least we are likely to see zonal planning used in Enterprise Zones and possibly areas managed by development corporations, alongside encouragement for councils to employ Local Development Orders which can introduce zoning into other specific geographically-limited growth areas. None of this would mark a radical break with the past, and indeed gets the thumbs up from many planners, who regard it as a sensible use of specific tools in specific areas to achieve specific ends.

Changing the system wholesale, bringing down the entire associated legal and financial edifice, is the work of an entire parliament, if not two

In all probability this is still the most likely outcome – given the strength of opposition that will be mounted to a genuinely radical and deregulatory change – not least from Tory councils, backbenchers and grassroots campaigners.

Of course the one change that would genuinely fit the bill of Johnson’s rhetoric – “the most radical reforms of our planning system since the end of the second world war” – is a move to replace the existing system wholesale with a zonal one.

Wholesale change is no quick fix

Firstly, do not imagine for a second that this will be a quick fix to boost the economy as it emerges from the shadows of the covid crisis. As one public affairs planning specialist told me – changing the system wholesale, bringing down the entire associated legal and financial edifice, is the work of an entire parliament, if not two. It would be subject to fierce debate and inevitably some of the fiercest opposition would come from within the Conservative Party itself – remember the Telegraph’s “Hands Off Our Land” campaign when the NPPF was published? Embarking on this will require the commitment of a serious amount of capital and politicians will have to be convinced it is really worth it.

It is worth noting that the last politician to attempt to do something similar was Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, of which the most enduring legacy was probably not the deregulation itself but the backlash against it, which delivered the more protective 1990 Act.

Winners and losers

Secondly, for the sector, the lengthy transition period will bring uncertainity, will probably be expensive and undoubtedly risky. There will be clear winners, and also big losers. One of the implications of zonal planning is that the allocation of land in a zone assumes total importance – and the upfront process of designating and deciding on zones will have to be (because of the lack of democratic involvement in decision-making later in the process) even more lengthy and involved than local plan formation currently is. The concept of “hope value” should be effectively removed – if you are not in the zone, then do not even bother trying – meaning current land holdings and options could be rendered worthless.

What on earth will happen where local authorities have not got their zoning designations in place – likely, given that so few are up to date with local plans – is another open question.

Caught up in red tape

Thirdly, it is not clear that zonal planning will actually entail a reduction in red tape. The two key elements of any zoning system – and systems work in very different ways across the world – are the zoning map, which defines the location and boundaries of zones, and the zoning regulations, which determine what developers must to do to be allowed to build.

The truth is there is no way of simply prioritising development above all other competing interests – the debate has to be had in some way and some form

The point is that in order to justify the reduction in democratic involvement on individual decisions, the overall regulations are often – certainly in systems such as on the continent, which are seen as upholding reasonable quality standards - much more prescriptive and detailed than we are used to. In addition the government says it is committed to design quality, and has endorsed all the findings of the Building Better Building Beautiful commission, so it can hardly be expected to advocate very light touch rules. It has already taken up the idea of design codes – these documents would form part of the zoning regulations in a zoning system and assume massive importance, not just guiding but significantly dictating what can be built. As Hugh Ellis, policy director of the Town and Country Planning Association, says – you can’t just assume that zonal planning will necessarily be deregulatory.

Danger of backlash

All of this is not to say that a good outcome for the industry could not be arrived at through a move to zonal planning – but that any move will be lengthy, and complex and have uncertain outcomes.

The truth is there is no way of simply prioritising development above all other competing interests – the debate has to be had in some way and some form, and the more communities are cut out of this, the bigger the chance of a significant backlash. And, often, the worse the resulting development is. In the meantime, the move to net zero carbon only makes the range of factors to be considered as part of the planning process more complex.

An imperfect system that can be made to work

In comparison to all this uncertainty, the current system is delivering a volume of permissions that it hasn’t for a long time. It is bureaucratic, risky, sometimes random and often incredibly frustrating, and it is undoubtedly a barrier for SME developers without the bandwidth to invest in understanding its complexity. But for those who are used to navigating the current system, it can be made to work.

The question is whether the industry really wants to open the Pandora’s Box of fundamental reform at such a challenging time for everyone, for the benefit of greater certainty zoning could ultimately deliver. This analysis of the issues by consultant Lichfields – hardly a bastion of Marxist thought – concludes ultimately that “a radical overhaul of the existing planning system in England to introduce zoning does not seem either viable or desirable, particularly in light of the many uncertainties and few advantages identifiable”.

At the moment it feels we may be about to embark headlong on a radical new course without careful consideration of the implications. The industry should be careful what it wishes for.

Joey Gardiner, contributing editor, Building