So What’s All the Fuss About: the Planning White Paper

June 25, 2021 2:42 PM
By Cllr Fiona White

22 June, 2021

The recent Chesham & Amersham by-election has focused a lot more attention on the government white paper on the future of planning policy in England. So what's all the fuss about? Is it just a load of NIMBYs making a noise?

The government says that the changes are needed to stimulate housebuilding. The fact is that 1m of the approximately 2.5m homes given planning permission in the last decade have still not been built. The government's proposals do nothing to make sure that developers actually build the homes they have permission for. Add to that another fact that there is land allocated for more than 1m homes in local plans that developers have still not brought forward through planning applications and it is clear that it is not the planning system that is the problem. There are no plans in the white paper to ensure that existing permissions are built out and that developers make the most use of current local plans.

There will still be a top-down imposition of housing numbers. Anyone who took part in the process to produce the 2019 Guildford Local Plan will know how that worked. Add to that the fact that the calculation of infrastructure levy would also be handed down from Whitehall and the situation becomes worse. A levy that would provide reasonable levels of infrastructure in the North East wouldn't go anywhere near what is needed in the South East. Top down planning from the centre does not recognize that England is a very diverse country and what is right for one part of the country would be wrong for another.

One of the major problems in Guildford is the lack of genuinely affordable housing. We don't need more and more executive homes attracting people from other parts of the country. We need homes for local people at prices or rents they can pay. These white paper proposals would make the situation worse. Local Government Association quotes an example of Elmbridge where there would have been a loss of 50% affordable housing achieved over the 5-year period from 2015 to 2020. We would be losing precious land to development but still not solving our problem. Now there is too much reliance on planning gain to get affordable housing. Developers are not charities. Their perfectly legitimate aim is to make the best profit they can: their bottom line. The way to achieve truly affordable housing, especially social housing for rent, is through government funding. Providing good quality housing that people can afford would make a big difference to the way they lead their lives.

The white paper does not offer any solution to the issue of climate change. Local councils across Surrey have adopted climate targets and plans to achieve net zero carbon ahead of the government's target of 2050. There is nothing in this white paper to reflect the desire to reduce our carbon emissions. What an opportunity lost!

Under these proposals, land would be zoned into one of three categories of Growth, Renewal, Protect without any evidence of how this would work in practice. There is no recognition of the diversity of English communities and landscapes and no flexibility to respond to changing circumstances. We do not know what the long-term impact of the Covid pandemic will be and the imposition of a rigid system would mean that we cannot react if needs change during the life of the plan.

One of the major issues with the white paper is the total lack of democracy in the process. We all know how complicated the local plan process is but the government wants to do away with current local plans and adopt new ones within a 30 month period. I agree that the current system of between 5 and 7 years takes far too long but dealing with that level of detail in 30 months is ridiculous especially as the final result will be binding and not able to be refined through a planning application. What is worse is that it takes away the right of communities to be heard in local plan enquiries. There is little reference to neighbourhood plans that can reflect the truly local needs of a community. It removes the process where a development can be looked at in great detail.

This white paper has been seen as a developers' charter. Some people have commented that it could have been written by developers. That is not my view but it is true that developers are major contributors to Conservative party coffers and we all know that whoever pays the piper calls the tune.