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“Computer Says Yes”? - Early observations on Boris Johnson’s all new, all digital, three zone planning system

Posted on 6 August 2020

The future is now. Under expansive reforms proposed yesterday the Government promises a modern, digital planning system capable of “sweeping aside” practically all of the knotty issues that have kept town planners busy since 1947, and perhaps even replacing them with computers.

The Planning White Paper, "Planning for the Future" is frothy with optimism, written with a foreword direct from the PM and filled with his characteristic ebullience. We are told the new system will deliver greater local influence (but within strict top-down development targets); certainty; reduced decision times; improved environmental performance and “beauty” (whatever that is) whilst also slimming down application documentation; opening the way for SME developers to make their mark; removal (or even automation) of case-by-case assessments and fully funded infrastructure everywhere it is needed including even more Affordable Housing. In short, the White Paper aspires to create everything you could ever want from a planning system.

To do this, the Government says we must throw out the whole system and start again. Change is needed, and whilst there is plenty in here to be wary about, approaching it with at least some of the optimism that the Government is urging must be worth a try. After all, the machinery of the planning system has been running on the wrong fuel for years. This is because the current system absolutely relies on there being up to date forward plans, and we don’t have them. The plan-led system in operation since 1947 means all of our institutions and procedures rely on forward looking local plans against which individual proposals can be assessed. But the experiment in local development frameworks has failed repeatedly, with half of local authorities unable to maintain an up to date development plan, and multiple reforms aimed at getting those plans in place just haven’t worked. So we are left without the plans that the system needs to function.

The Government’s solution? Well it isn’t the obvious choice. In what can only be called a radical set of changes the White Paper proposes an unprecedented increase in the importance of our (currently out of date or non-existent) local spatial plans. Under “Pillar One” these plans will be elevated to essentially a permission in principle for most developable land, with every single part of England to be designated as either a “protected”, “growth” or “renewal” area. The plans will be digital, the fully on-line new system to be widely accessible and accompanied by only the most minimal additional documentation. 

What happened to Localism?

Given the simple choice of “protected”, “growth” or “renewal” it is not difficult to predict which designations will be most popular with local people reticent about change in their neighbourhoods. However, the Government's stated aspiration is to "build, build, build". Accordingly, the real core of the proposals are left unsaid: the White Paper quietly makes provision for an enormous consolidation of planning power in Westminster, proposing a shift away from objectively assessed/data-driven planning in favour of central targets which must be reflected in the new plans. Whilst the spatial distribution of the three main zones and some fine-grained detail within the growth and renewal zones will be determined by local authorities, those choices will be constrained by the need to accommodate central housing delivery targets. There is a nod to old Localism, but the focus and influence of local input seems more likely to have an impact on the "Pillar Two" issues about design and detailing rather than the principle of development.

A promise of certainty

What does all that mean? Well business likes certainty, and what the Government is fundamentally trying to do is create iron-clad certainty that designated land can be developed for specified purposes without getting bogged down in planning appeals and local issues. There are still some hard economic issues that need to be grappled with. The White Paper talks of ‘sweeping aside’ viability appraisals because a one-size-fits-all roof tax will fund both infrastructure and affordable housing - but just because you don’t test the viability doesn’t mean it stops having an influence on delivery. Similarly, housing is to be directed to the most over-priced locations, as if the inherent constraints to delivery which have led to those undersupply issues can simply be deleted from the algorithm. The economic logic seems to be that if the Government makes it easy enough (by removing enough opposition and uncertainty) then business will find a way to overcome those problems.


The third pillar of the proposal seeks to remove more obstacles, by shifting the burden of infrastructure delivery almost entirely onto local authorities. A nationally set (and therefore predictable) proportion of end-product GDV will be payable by the Developer under revised CIL arrangements, with the (seemingly unsupervised) responsibility for turning that cash into roads and schools and Affordable Housing resting largely with the local authority. This means local authorities will assemble even larger war chests for infrastructure delivery and will need to become highly proficient developers in their own right in order to manage, forecast and spend that money so as to deliver the infrastructure in a timely and well distributed way, and may have to use Peter's contributions to build Paul's roundabout where schemes are physically dependent on new infrastructure.

It's all in the plans

It seems that, like all the reforms that have come before them, these proposals will succeed or fail with the plan making process. If the plans that the new system still relies on still don’t get made then the futuristic new system will be even less able to adapt than the one we have now. Once every three years developers will get a spin in a high stakes roulette game for new allocations as pressure for more land leads to reconsideration of some the "protected" status sites. However, if those plan-making skirmishes can be minimised, if we accept the top-down targets and the harsh realities of winners and losers over zoning decisions; if we actually put some comprehensive and regularly updated spatial plans in place then it all just might work. If the green belt and other ‘protected’ sites are taken off the table once and for all, and if developable land is given fixed overheads and designated as having effectively zero planning risk then it may be possible to focus developer interest on the more difficult "renewal" brownfield and infill sites. If design codes are locally produced then perhaps that means the market will welcome the resulting product, even if it does have to be engineered to fit the new economic model of lower house prices. Developers are pretty good at predicting demand, so maybe we never needed all those complicated objective assessments anyway…

Get in touch

The "Planning for the future" consultation will be closing in late October, and responses are sought on reforms affecting virtually every aspect of planning and development practice. We are getting our submissions ready, so please feel free to share your thoughts on the White Paper with your usual MdR contact. If you want to put in your own consultation response, we would be happy to help with that, too.

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