Whenever anyone wants to build a house in England they first have to secure planning permission from their local council.
This can be a lengthy, expensive and often frustrating process, involving mountains of red tape, public consultation, battles with ‘nimbys’ and negotiations with council planners.
But all this could soon change, with the government proposing the biggest shakeup of planning since the current system was put in place in 1947.
Ministers claim the planning system as it stands is ‘an inefficient, opaque process’ which delivers ‘poor outcomes’. They say it is a major barrier standing in the way of the government’s ambition of building 300,000 a year.
One key proposals is for a move away from the situation where planning applications are determined on a case-by-case basis, to a more American-style ‘zonal’ system.
Under this system, a simplified local plan would place sites into three different categories: ‘growth’ areas, where outline planning permission is automatically granted; ‘renewal’ areas which are suitable for some development such as ‘gentle densification’; and ‘protected’ areas where development is restricted.
The government also wants to do away with ‘section 106’ agreements, through which councils secure affordable homes and other local improvements from developers. Under the new system, these agreements, which can often lead to delays and legal wrangling, would be replaced with a simpler national levy.
There would also be a fast-track process for ‘beautiful’ buildings – although it is unclear how beauty would be measured by planners.
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick says the idea is to create a ‘significantly simpler, faster and more predictable system’ which would ‘facilitate a more diverse and competitive housing industry’. He also claims the new system would allow residents to be ‘more engaged’ wit the planning process.
Stoke-on-Trent recently saw an example of the problems which can afflict the current system. Planning committee members had to put off making a decision on an application for 157 home on the former Chatterley Whitfield Sports Ground due to delays in council officers supplying some information.
But more generally, is the current planning system the bureaucratic barrier to development which the government says it is? Not everybody thinks so.
The Local Government Association points out that nine in 10 planning applications are approved by councils, and more than a million homes given planning permision over the last decade have yet to be built.
Development consultant and Sentinel columnist Dave Proudlove doubts that the proposed reforms will achieve the government’s stated aims, and points out that other issues need to be addressed to boost house-building.
He said: “Does the planning system need reforming? It probably does, as we’ve had the current system for over 60 years, and things have changed a lot over that time period.
“However, some of the things the government is proposing seem quite extreme – like a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I think it missing the point. We need to build more houses but I don’t think that tinkering with the planning system will achieve that.
“I contributed to the House of Lords review into the economics of house building which led to this 300,000 a year target. The fact is that we used to be able to build that many and the planning system wasn’t a problem.
“The number of houses built by the private sector has remained pretty static, at around 150,000 a year. The thing that has been missing over the last four decades has been council house building – and that has got nothing to do with the planning system.
“In North Staffordshire there is a problem with building residential developments on brownfield sites. I’ve been involved in one site where there are £6 million of costs in the ground. Something like that will need the support of the public sector.”
Many of North Staffordshire’s brownfield sites have stood vacant for years, but it would be difficult to blame the planning system for this.
Stoke-on-Trent City Council first granted planning permission for homes on the old Victoria Ground site in Stoke in 2007, but the recession meant that these plans were shelved.
New plans for 200 homes on the site were approved a decade later – a full 20 years after Stoke City vacated the stadium – and the development is now, finally, well underway.
Elsewhere in the city, nine sites in Burslem were allocated £10 million from the Government’s Housing Infrastructure Fund in 2018, with the aim of making developments on brownfield land more economically viable.
Schemes such as this, and improving economic conditions, have resulted in a rise in house-building locally. More than 1,000 homes were built in Stoke-on-Trent, the highest annual total since before the reccession – although student accommodation accounted for 396 units.
The city council and Newcastle Borough Council are currently working on a joint local plan for North Staffordshire, which will set out how 1,390 homes a year can be built across the two areas up to 2037. It is unclear how the proposed planning reforms will affect the joint local plan.
According to the city council’s new strategic housing land availability assessment – a key document which will feed into the local plan – there are 36 development sites in Stoke-on-Trent which currently have planning permission, with a combined capacity for 3,877 homes.
After the last recession, housing completions in Stoke-on-Trent fell to an historic low of 294 units in 2009/10. It remains to be seen whether the current Covid-induced recession – the deepest on record – will prove to be a bigger barrier to house-building than the outdated planning system.