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Planning free-for-all will only make things worse

Alan Jones

A sound planning system must be based on economics, geography and data in order to leave a solid legacy we can be proud of: Alan Jones addresses the planning reform white paper

This time last year the Goldsmith Street housing project was rising up through the judging process to receive the Stirling Prize, and on that award’s night Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government was the RIBA’s guest speaker.  It revealed how well designed, low energy homes can have a positive impact on health and wellbeing, minimising the problems of heat or eat, improving health and reducing the burden on our NHS and optimising attendance at school and work – an integrated example for the future.

One year on, England’s central government seeks to extend Permitted Development Rights and have published a Planning Reform White Paper. The primary reason given for the reforms is to accelerate construction of homes - but the planning reform relates to all forms of buildings and development.  The planning system in England, like many, is cumbersome, slow and unpredictable, being under-resourced for decades.  It is political, subject to opinion, persuasion and those with the loudest, most articulate voices and the deepest pockets.   It needs updating.

At the geographical level, homes are much more affordable in certain parts of our country, but those areas do not have the work opportunities.   So planning at its highest level is the geographic and strategic distribution of economic activity and the associated local infrastructure of roads, schools and hospitals, and homes for everyone.  The current pandemic demonstrates the increasingly essential relationship between where we live and work.  We are now less keen to commute, and businesses and their workers can see the benefits of working from home. What impact this will have for neighbourhoods and high streets needs to be explored.  The long-term impact of Covid 19 will also have major changes to where we have been working.  Central business districts will change significantly with increased working from home and lower densities of workers. Many office buildings would likely be retrofitted to residential which will change weekend and evening occupation of cities, increasing the likelihood of better city environments, and liveability rankings.  

Covid 19 has also shown how overcrowding, caused by multi-generational living in unsuitable housing has increased the risk of infection. Our country needs a greater variety of types of homes, based on data and research, that matches supply and demand, rather than taking what is on offer, either as older, existing, stock or new “take it or leave it” homes mostly from the small number of large volume house builders. It is not a numbers game, of homes built, but what type, to what quality and where. 

There is an urgency to levelling equality, giving access to affordable homes and so to “Get Britain Building” but accelerating unbridled development is not the solution to reducing the 30% of the population living in poor housing, addressing climate emergency and leaving a built legacy to be proud of.  For each philanthropic Bourneville, enlightened housing association and noble development company we already have numerous examples of development focused on the financial bottom line – with all the poor spatial, environmental and construction qualities that implies.   Yes, it is helpful that the White Paper emphasises “good design’ and let us streamline where we can, but not cut corners on quality nor open flood gates to permit poorly considered development, mean spatial standards, inside and out, and low performance.  We urge local chartered architects to be engaged to fill the laissez-faire planning system staffing gap.  Government regulated and knowing the locality, demand and what will be appropriate, chartered architects can be held accountable.

What we build remains for many generations, becomes the physical legacy of our ideals and ethics, and is the very fabric of our society.  I am aware of a broad range of views within the RIBA membership on these new proposals. Our focus is on ensuring that the planning system works in the interests of society and the ability of architects to play a leading role in shaping the future of the built environment, and we will look for member’s input and support.

To make planning more predictable and less political, it has to be based on economics, data and evidence and be geographically based, with better defined spatial and environmental standards and regulations. Then we will have a planning system that delivers value for all.

The consultation period for the Planning Reform white paper closes on 29 October 2020