Why it’s time to redraw a dysfunctional planning regime

The rules are a mess. The planners are under-staffed. The results are terrible
3D model of a housing development plan

“Planning rules in this country are not designed to shape development. They are designed to prevent it.” The speaker is Freddie Poser, director of Priced Out, a lobby group for housing affordability, but it could be anyone in the construction trade.

Planning in the UK is dire. Slow. Bureaucratic. Unpredictable. And getting worse. In a recent twist, Natural England demanded 120,000 new-build houses be put on hold until developers can prove they are not adding to nutrient pollution. “A complete mess,” said the Community Planning Alliance.

The result is a housing shortage. Vacant dwellings are 2.6% of the stock, by far the lowest among comparable nations – in France it’s 8%, Japan at 14%. Homes are tiny, too. The average new-build in England in the UK is 76m2, compared to 112m2 in France and 137m2 in Denmark. Room size in the UK is less than half of Denmark.

Planners are overwhelmed

So what’s going wrong? Where to begin. “There’s no one rulebook in the UK, or should I say England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, as planning is devolved,” Poser says. “Instead, there are multiple acts spanning decades. There are endless sticking plasters, endless changes, endless levels of environmental reviews and design reviews that the council must take into account.”

A planner must consider ground conditions, land stability, ecology, drainage, flood risk, highway safety, travel plans, sustainability, trees, biodiversity net gain, impact to the landscape, noise, air quality, energy, heritage and public engagement. 

Then there’s the location. There are National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the green belt, and conservation areas. Anything with a listed building brings its own problems.

Thus a simple project, such as the demolition of a two-storey building in Enfield and replacement with four tower blocks required 195 documents. This included a response from Sport England on increased leisure demand (swimming pool demand would be raised by 0.04 pools, plus 0.05 rinks of an indoor bowls centre). 

The planners are naturally overwhelmed. There are too few, and those that exist are underfunded. 

Planning budgets cut

The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), which represents planners, conducted a survey to find out the condition of members. Nearly three-quarters think that constant changes to planning by governments have hindered their ability to deliver good places. More than half think these changes have hindered housing development. Nearly 70% think that they are less able to deliver the benefits of planning compared to 10 years ago.

The lack of funding is arguably self-defeating. A few more quid on the planning budget would unlock projects, stimulate the construction industry, and ultimately reduce pressure on house prices – helping the rest of the economy. Professor Alister Scott of Northumbria University is a vocal defender of planners trying to cope despite being under-resourced and mucked about by politicians. “The RTPI report on Resourcing Public Planning in 2019 revealed that total net investment in planning is now just £400m,” Scott says. “This is 50 times less than local authority spending on housing welfare, and 20 times less than estimates of the additional uplift in land values which could be captured for the public during development.”

This may present a picture of planners sprawled over legal documents. Yet the human element plays a major role in planning consent. Research by Leader Floors shows planning authorities such as Wigan, Isles of Scilly, and Richmond approve more than 95% of applications; in Hillingdon and East Hertfordshire the approval rate is under 40%. 

Planning doesn’t necessarily make a development any better and certainly doesn’t make it any more beautiful 

“It is very political,” says Grace Manning-Marsh, head of staff at LandTech, a software platform for automating the planning process. Decisions for all major applications of 10 residential units or more are made by local councillors, who can override the planning officer’s recommendation. This is often done for a non-planning reason and the council is left finding a policy to attribute it to. These applications then often end up being successful at appeal, but this is a time consuming and costly approach to getting planning permission.”

The subjectivity can be seen, she says, when two planning officers take opposing views on the same project. An application can be rejected, only to be rehashed in near identical form and given the green light by another planning officer.

She tells the tale of a planning committee in Oxford, run by Labour councillors, voting against the building of a new primary school against an officer’s recommendation. No significant factors were cited. The school in question was a Free School, part of the Conservative party’s education policy. One committee member said they would not support a Tory party policy. The application went to appeal and the school opened a few years later.

Rules let nimbys block developments

Last of all is the developer’s bane: the Section 106 stalling tactic. In theory, Section 106 ensures developers contribute to the community to compensate for the impact on new arrivals. This should be a sum worked out mathematically. In practice, it can be anything but. “It’s been weaponised,” says one commentator, who preferred to remain anonymous. “Councillors may want to block a development for political reasons. So they make the Section 106 so onerous that the developer declines. They can make it so there is no way a developer can tick all the boxes, it’s just too difficult.”

The nimby instinct, the acronym for “not in my back yard”, thrives in this policy jungle. Even cabinet ministers can throw a spanner in the works. At Enfield, the plan to build four towers, including 132 affordable flats, gained council approval, only to be vetoed personally by Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, at the behest of Chipping Barnet MP Theresa Villiers. The objections by Villiers focused on the scale and design. Shapps blocked the development owing to a loss of car parking. The site is adjacent to the Tube stop. 

Construction firms know the cost of this failure. Delayed applications. Absurd expense. Eroded faith in the sanity of the system as decisions are declined on bizarre pretexts. 

If councillors want to block a development, the Section 106 is so onerous that no developer can tick all the boxes

Overall, the cost to the industry and nation is incalculable. The construction industry is hammered. And life for many is miserable due to housing costs and quality. Research by The Times found 90% of house-shares advertised in London lack a sitting room. The communal space is converted into a bedroom. It’s a miserable way to live. 

Even the government concedes things need to change. Housing secretary Michael Gove is vocal about the “barriers that can gum up planning applications”. His predecessor Robert Jenrick recently admitted, “The current system clearly doesn’t work. It doesn’t produce outcomes which anyone seems to support. The quality of homes is often poor. The design element of homes is not good.” And even suggested reforms, such as an infrastructure levy on big developers to fund local projects to reduce objections, and a revision of design codes, are not enough says Jenrick. More is needed to “make any dent on the housing crisis.”

Finding a solution will be tricky. It will take political commitment to tackle entrenched interests. More houses mean taking on the nimby lobby. Urban building requires confronting pro-car advocates who believe we all have a right to drive and park. Faster approval means upsetting councils where elected officials campaign on opposing local developments. Even simple upgrades such as permitting mansard roofs demands a rethink from planners who decided - quite arbitrarily - on design principles favouring flat linear skylines. Jenrick, for one, is clear, this political will is absent. 

It is worth noting that Europe’s most beautiful cities existed before formal planning. The city of Florence is a mess of added stories, higgledy-piggledy roofs, improvised ornamentation, and narrow streets. The apartments in Piazza San Pier Maggiore were built centuries ago, out of the back end of a now demolished church where Botticini’s Palmieri Altarpiece was placed. The poet Byron declared himself drunk with the beauty of the city.Under our current planning regulations, barely a building in Florence would exist.

When Florence is forbidden but soulless rectangular blocks thrive, it is clear something has gone badly wrong.