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The Government’s new planning White Paper has legal, social and practical implications for local councils, developers and residents.

The Government’s Planning for the Future White Paper seeks to streamline the planning process and to simplify development management. It also emphasises digital public engagement and the use of zones and codes to implement controls.

In our recent webinar, Simon Wood, Director of Planning and Building Control for Capita in our partnership with Breckland Council, discussed the White Paper with Scott Stemp, Planning Barrister at No5 Chambers; Esther Kurland, Director at Urban Design London; and Councillor Shimon Ryde, Planning Chairman for Barnet Council.

Scott felt that the proposals in Planning for the Future might put new pressures on councils, by “frontloading” many of the processes for approval. There would also be pressure to meet the ambitious 2024 deadline for rolling out the new process, which would require new primary and secondary legislation. The emphasis on the role of local councils would also require them to exercise judgement, for example when an infrastructure project may cross local authority borders or when today’s decisions may limit the implementation of future projects.

Scott was also concerned that, because citizens are used to participating later in the planning process, much more engagement would be required to ensure their participation at the early stage envisaged in the White Paper. He was also worried that some older people and those without access to the internet or digital skills could be excluded by the proposed digital approach to engagement.

“There is an urgent and pressing need to ensure that people are fully engaged, fully aware of what is a significant… change that is coming,” he said.

He concluded on a positive note: “Of course, these are opportunities for the public sector and the private sector to fundamentally change how planning works.” But he cautioned that “the challenge in all of that is to make sure that it's done appropriately, proportionately and effectively”.

Esther explained two key planning mechanisms proposed by the White Paper: zoning and coding. Planning for the Future outlines three zones: growth areas identified for new development; renewal areas identified for incremental improvement; and green zones to be protected from development. This zoning approach is not new – some councils have been using it for more than 20 years – but councils will need to carefully examine what they want to achieve in a particular area before applying it.

She said that coding could be used to direct long-term change in big schemes, or as a design guide for incremental change in existing neighbourhoods. However, codes should help to improve an area, not just to reinforce its existing character.

She was concerned that there may be an unaddressed gap between codes and zoning: “It's really understanding how the edges of that site work with their neighbours. How things like flooding, or sudden nature protection issues, or views, or topography, or orientation, or microclimates, or whatever it is, works in that area. And therefore, how you apply the code… And so that's something that we need to think about in terms of how the White Paper is going to go forward.”

Shimon emphasised the important role of local planning committees when considering the White Paper and felt that the Government’s proposals strengthened enforcement and streamlined the planning process. He agreed with Esther that zoning was already happening in boroughs and that it would make the most sense when applied to smaller areas, rather than entire boroughs.

He also supported the move to a digital platform to help more members of the public to participate in the planning process, and he felt that it would be better than the current paper-based system. “I think digitisation is a really strong and important way of allowing people to know what's going on,” he said.

Shimon supported the aim of the White Paper to streamline the process and said that at the heart of the paper was “the hope that we can bring forward 300,000 units a year nationally”.

“So, if it helps with that, I'm sure we'll support it… Because housing is really critical,” he added.

During the webinar, participants were polled on the White Paper’s key proposals. Eighty percent said they had not used design codes, and almost 50% of those who had did not find them to be successful. Almost 60% of participants supported the idea of a new national design quality unit. Twenty five percent were unsure. Respondents were split roughly evenly between those who wanted the new unit to focus on training and those who also wanted it to carry out advocacy and research and to deploy team members to support planners.

In response to questions from participants, Esther said that it would be a challenge for local authorities to produce design codes flexible enough that developers could comply with them and avoid the need for a bespoke planning application. “I think it's a little tight rope to walk with design codes because if they're too prescriptive, everyone will want to break them, if they're not prescriptive enough... they're not going to produce good outcomes… So, one thing that you can think about is codes can set parameters, for example, on height, they could set a lowest height and a highest height, and you can do anything between there.”

Asked about neighbourhood plans, Shimon felt that they were “a way of enfranchising people who live in an area” and that “we could trust people who live locally to understand… how that design will affect the areas where they live”. Esther pointed out that, currently, neighbourhood planning is undermined when developers get the go-ahead despite local residents’ objections.

The panel felt the White Paper was not clear about how its proposals would affect Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act, which seeks to provide funding mechanisms, balance the need for affordable housing, and enforce planning standards. They felt that Planning for the Future might have implications for affordable housing that required further consultation. Scott felt that Section 106 might continue in some form to manage the financial contribution to affordable housing.

Listen to the full conversation about the post-pandemic challenges and opportunities facing planners here or read about our planning services here.

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