Building up gently with consent?

Kieran Toms, reflects on yesterday’s announcements on planning reform.

Yesterday it was that time again – the red briefcase was dusted off and the budget was revealed. As well as the big headline announcements, the Budget review on Planning Reform  also emerged from the Budget Box. Here at Create Streets we were very pleased to see that some of the ideas that we and others (such as London YIMBY) have been working up were firmly reflected in this paper. Our policy recommendations on the use of design codes and permitted development were mentioned, and two of our reports were directly referenced: Create Boulevards, and, (with Policy Exchange,) Better Brownfield.

As you might expect, we’re pleased about this, although it’s a currently a consultation document, and so some key questions still need to be answered. But broadly, it is step in the right direction:

‘A number of researchers and commentators are investigating how high quality residential development can be delivered at high densities in urban areas to create liveable and popular communities, and how these can be supported and developed through planning. Many reports note that some of the most densely populated areas of cities are some of the most desirable, that English urban areas are relatively low density by international standards, and that good design means that high density does not have to be the same as tall buildings. ‘

They go on to mention our reports and demonstrate their awareness of our thinking on how to deliver this kind of development:

“Permitted development rights, as set out in this paper, could play a role in supporting higher density development, alongside national planning policy, local plans, local design codes and good masterplanning.”

Permitted development could be a positive force. A lot of the issues in the English Planning system stem from the fact that pretty much every new development produces a set of negotiations (or often: disputes) between developers and local authorities. This is time-consuming and benefits only deep-pocketed major developers. Smaller housebuilders (including self-builders or community-led housing) find it much much harder to get a look whilst councils are forced to devote huge resource (albeit still less resource than big developers can summon) to reaction, instead of being able to proactively take steps to make better places. Permitted development removes this part of the planning process, allowing certain kinds of development to take place without planning permission.

But it is fair to say that permitted development rights around change of use have been very controversial, as councils miss out on Section 106 payments and minimum space standards don’t need to be adhered to. The consultation document alludes to this: ‘the operation of permitted development rights for change of use can sometimes raise local issues.’ It is encouraging to see that they propose bringing forward permitted development alongside things like local design codes. A debate also needs to happen about minimum home seizes and pre-set ‘betterment payments’ for affordable housing and infrastructure.

Essentially this would bring us closer to a system that most other European countries have, whereby the local authority can set the parameters for new development – often setting things like height, width, proportions and materials – if a developer sticks to that,  then, (to use the English terminology in a foreign context) development is permitted, and there’s no need to go through the process of getting planning permission. The essay we published by Ruadrih Tulloch is useful to understand how such a process works in France.

This consultation isn’t going to jump straight to that sort of system, but it’s a sign that the thinking is moving in the right direction. The devil will be in the detail, of course. The document outlines plans for permitted development upwards, saying “This policy offers an opportunity to bring forward well-designed homes which enhance the streetscape while making effective use of land.” This is all very well, but it’s also just words. Any developer can say that their homes are well-designed and enhance the streetscape (and they frequently spend hundreds of pages of planning documentation to do so, even when most people might disagree with them).

Implementing design codes well would mean that what “well-designed” actually looks like in reality is tightly defined at a much earlier stage, and there’s far less need for costly debate. Of course, debate can still take place, but at a local or community level, in an accountable and democratic way, when design codes are set by the Local Authority. The consultation is already asking ‘Do you think there is a role for local design codes to improve outcomes from the application of the proposed right?’  We think the answer is yes, but the key question should be ‘Who implements the design codes and how detailed will they need to be?’

As they’ve been reading our work, we’re hopeful that these questions can be answered in a positive way!

You can read more about our comparative research on planning systems in our paper From NIMBY to YIMBY and in our forthcoming study, More Good Homes.

Kieran Toms is a urban designer and researcher at Create Streets.