A new report by parliament’s Housing, Communities & Local Government Committee reviews the government’s proposed reform of the planning system. The committee chair discusses the issues
What’s the background to your report, The Future of the Planning System in England?
The government’s proposed reforms, published in a White Paper in August, move away from an emphasis on individual planning applications to a system based on ‘growth’, ‘renewal’ and ‘protected’ zones set out in Local Plans. We need to see the legislation, but we have many questions about how the zone system will work. Local accountability is a real concern. It is right to emphasise Local Plans, and to try to engage the public in planning at that stage. But there could be a huge backlash if there’s no further public involvement at application stage.
Has the government underestimated how complex planning has to be?
Probably. They will struggle to write what’s in the White Paper in legislative terms. A simplified approach might work in growth areas, but how do you do it with renewal areas, which are all so different? And the aim is to rewrite all Local Plans within 30 months. With planning departments so stretched that’s not realistic.
The White Paper mentions a ‘fast track for beauty’. What views about that were expressed to the committee?
When taking evidence we were told a dozen times that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. There are many questions: how can you marry automatic approval to build on certain sites with any real say for councils or communities? A design that’s appropriate in one place won’t be appropriate in another, and it’s those nuances that the planning system is meant to address.
The White Paper focusses almost wholly on housing. What’s your view of current proposals?
The committee supports the ambition of 300,000 new homes per year, but in recent years Local Authorities have issued far more permissions than have been built. We’ve suggested measures – and penalties – to ensure that build-out happens. Since our inquiry started the government has changed the housing needs calculation, warding off some MPs’ concerns by reallocating housing from rural areas in the south into major cities. I’m not sure those homes can be built without using the green belt, so the government still faces real challenges.
You’ve also suggested a review of the Green Belt
We don’t challenge the principle, but there are some areas where land could be added or taken out. With a review you could get some sensible compromises.
A Planning Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech in May. When might that be?
The presumption is ‘this parliamentary session’, which could go on till the middle of next year. The rumour is that the bill has been pushed back due to difficulties in drafting the legislation. That’s why we think scrutiny of a draft bill by our committee would be appropriate.