The planning system needs wholesale reform but this white paper is not how to do it, writes Julia Park

Julia Park

Given the monumental challenges we face this year, it would be easy to ignore the white paper Planning for the Future as just another thing to think about. But it would be dangerous to do so.

Commentators may be divided about the proposed reforms, but everyone seems to agree about two things: that the planning system must change and that, to quote the prime minister in his energetic foreword, “[this paper proposes] radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War”.

In 61 pages of poorly drafted and relentlessly repetitive text, the general thrust is deregulatory; much more about speed than about quality. Badged as simpler and more democratic, it’s unlikely to be either if it goes ahead. While Robert Jenrick, as Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, is ostensibly responsible for the white paper (and writes its second, somewhat less energetic foreword), it is often not ministers that come up with the ideas these days.

In a sane world you would expect a government contemplating monumental changes to the planning system to take advice from its own chief planner and the heads of the national planning bodies – the TCPA and RTPI. They may have done so, but the ideas in the white paper stem from Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century, a report by Jack Airey, who was working at the influential think tank Policy Exchange at the time.

Airey sketched out plans for what the Guardian called “a bonfire of red tape” and a future in which “development rules should be clear and non-negotiable”. Arguing that specific uses should no longer be attached to specific parcels of land, he wrote: “Market conditions should instead determine how urban space is used in the development zone” – effectively arguing against planning in any meaningful sense of the word. I shuddered at the thought in my Building Design February column, particularly as Airey had just been ensconced in Number 10, as Boris’ chief housing advisor.

The timing of the white paper is either unfortunate or cynical. It would have been written in the knowledge that Steve Quartermain, the former chief planner in MHCLG, was working out his notice having decided to move on. But rather than wait and see what his successor, Joanna Averley, made of it, they published.

The failure even to mention the Raynsford Review is astonishing. Initiated and supported by the TCPA and begun in spring 2017, Planning 2020 was published in November 2018. Led by Nick Raynsford, the current president of the TCPA and a former Labour housing minister, there is no argument about the need for change, but most of his recommendations could hardly be more different from those in the white paper. Raynsford’s ideas are based on genuinely democratic principles which put people at the heart of the planning process. The review itself was also democratic; involving a review task force, many roundtable discussions, an open consultation on an interim report, published in May 2018, and a final report which reflected the feedback. At 124 pages, it’s twice as long as Planning for the Future, but infinitely more persuasive.

In a sane world you would expect a government contemplating monumental changes to the planning system to take advice from its own chief planner

Having said that, not all of the ideas in the white paper are bad. I welcome the suggestions that local plans should be shorter and delivered more quickly, that planning applications should be standardised and simplified, and that planning statements should be restricted to a single, 50-page document. The idea that every local planning authority should appoint a “chief officer for design and placemaking” is a good one, as is the recognition that local planning authorities will need support during the transition. It suggests that a “new expert body” could help authorities make effective use of design guidance and codes, perform a wider monitoring role and challenge the sector to build better places – but no suggestion that they should be architects, who barely get a mention. The realisation that Homes England should be leading by example when it comes to housing quality is clearly right, but it needs to mean more than ticking the boxes of the latest take on Building for Life.

I ought to welcome the references to beauty too. A couple of mentions would have been fine, but it’s used relentlessly; three times in one sentence on page 17:

“[We will…] Ask for beauty and be far more ambitious for the places we create, expecting new development to be beautiful, and to create a ‘net gain’ not just ‘no net harm’, with a focus on ‘placemaking’ and ‘the creation of beautiful places within the National Planning Policy Framework.” [The one that will replace the one we only published last year…]

In an astonishingly clumsy phrase on page 13, we are told that, “…better-off people experience more beauty than poorer people…”.

Whether the repetition of “beauty” is intentional or careless, it is certainly naïve and patronising. The problem is that it can only ever be subjective – who decides what’s beautiful and on what basis?

Well, we all do. Taking cues from a national design code, to be produced soon by MHCLG with Urbed, every “local community” will be expected to produce a local design code setting out what beauty means within the confines of the arbitrary red line that separates their local authority from their neighbours’. Who knows what “code” means in this context: it seems to be something that isn’t regulation or standards – but somehow it, “sets the parameters for development rather than making discretionary decisions based on vague policies…”. Am I the only person struggling to think of anything vaguer than a democratically derived definition of beauty that varies all over the country? Or the only one wondering where the next London Plan and long-awaited, new housing design standards might fit into this new regime?

I don’t know where the obsession with beauty originated either, but Airey is certainly associated with the “building beautiful” agenda, having co-authored a Policy Exchange paper with the late Conservative philosopher and Building Better Building Beautiful Commissioner Roger Scruton, in 2018. It’s tempting to suggest that we veto any feedback on the white paper until MHCLG defines what beauty means, but it’s much more important that we read and respond to it.

Before you do, take a look at The Wrong Answers to the Wrong Questions – a set of essays written by a bunch of real experts. Another 64 pages to digest, but like the Raynsford report, it’s well worth it.

This article was first published by Building’s sister title Building Design. Julia Park is Building Design’s housing columnist and head of housing research at Levitt Bernstein