It’s good news that most of the old planning framework has been dumped. It was complex, unwieldy, and suited few. I had hoped to enjoy its replacement more than I did on first read through. It 65 pages and 207 clauses is a great improvement on what went before, but it’s not a clear and snappy read.
The five principles of sustainable development that overarch the whole are far from precise. As others have pointed out, this is a hand me down from the last government. It’s not clear how important they might be in any individual case, or how they will be interpreted. The three aims are unexceptional. The economic aim is to allow all the building we need for a growing economy. The social aim is to make sure we have enough homes and other facilities. The environmental aims are various, including protecting and enhancing the natural and built environment. The large question is how the possible conflict between protecting the countryside and finding enough land for new homes, offices and factories is to be resolved in case after case.
The government has listened to criticisms of its first draft. Brownfield sites are now usually to be preferred. Green belt protection is reaffirmed. Local communities can designate land as local green space, giving it Green Belt like status within their communities for important smaller areas, as long as they do this through an approved plan. There are new tighter rules on traveller sites in another document, following recent controversies. Car parking ratios are relaxed so new developments in areas where people need to use cars can reflect the reality of car ownership after years of artificial restriction on car parking. Town Centre lovers now learn that new shop development should occur in the centre, or on its edge, with out of town only if all else fails.
The big issue at the heart is how many homes should be built? This still has a plan led answer, where Councils have to assess demand for many years ahead, state a figure for the annual need for new homes, and then ensure five years supply of land plus a reserve is continuously available. Planners find this notoriously difficult. Recent years have seen huge disruption to the plans on the downside, as mortgage money dried up in the Credit Crunch and as housebuilders reined in their activities. England will divide into those places which already have local plans, where the local plan will guide and restrict development as long as the five year supply of land is available, and the rest where the presumption in favour of sustainable development will dominate in decisions.
Existing local plans were of course often drawn up under the past government’s guidance, requiring higher housing targets. I do not buy into the criticism of the document that it will restrict new planning permissions. The aim is clearly to expand provision in places where there is demand by appealing to the presumption in favour of sustainable development in the absence of a plan. In the areas with plans, they anyway have quite high housing targets in them reflecting the past government demands.
I do not think housebuilding need to be held up by a shorttage of land under this regime. Local communities will need well crafted local plans in order to assert their own views on development, and in order to restrict development to acceptable locations. The issue for the housing makret, at least temporarily, is not land but is prices and mortgages.