The White Paper’s intent is to deliver more homes, faster. It emphasises the need for clarity and simplicity and highlights net gain and the need to overcome generational divide and inequality of home ownership. All good but one thing is clear: the big and urgent environmental and social issues will never be resolved by developing land on a site by site basis. Most solutions can only be delivered through an integrated plan at scale, whether that is sustainable infrastructure, environmental mitigation, health and wellbeing rooted in active travel, biodiversity or landscape restoration.
In the face of the challenges ahead, we need a bold, forward-facing planning system. Under the Government’s Planning for the Future proposals, the site by site approach is replaced with areas of growth, renewal and protection. So if areas become the basis for the preparation of Local Plans, might we be better able to plan for the places that are needed?
The best-case scenario arising from the White Paper is that a landscape-led approach is taken to connect people and place. Then when sites come forward in a growth area, they would be subject to well-considered spatial frameworks, design parameters embedded in the Local Plan, and design codes which establish the key relationships with infrastructure. Connections would be made, including an understanding of how areas of protection can help areas of growth. A new national Infrastructure Levy would provide the necessary funding outside site red lines.
This could radically change the prospects, for example, for strategic green infrastructure. Instead of being dealt with site by site in the hope that some bits might eventually join up, genuine working networks have a chance to emerge. Then GI can begin to secure major net gains, for biodiversity of course but also for placemaking, health and wellbeing, climate action and economic prosperity.
So, the goal of drawing up masterplans and frameworks accompanied by design codes to direct development sounds good. The Local Planning Authority could operate more like an enlightened master developer, planning and releasing land to create new places which secure the right outcomes.
Of course, if the intention behind the proposals is, as many fear, to diminish planning controls and abandon regulation, they would be disastrous. Look at the big red flag which is the shameful standards that accompany the expansion of permitted development.
What actually has to happen for an area-based system to achieve meaningful change at scale? First, Planning for the Future needs a sharper focus on the future. The desire to speed up planning must be about addressing the climate emergency, infrastructure planning and new forms of mobility, as well as delivering homes.
Second, the trick will be properly resourcing the skill base to draw the plans. The Planning system has struggled for too long with systematic under-funding and under-resourcing. And there needs to be serious investment in the ‘means and measures’ – the parameters and codes and standards that would be essential to success.
Third, proper public engagement will be critical. That means high-profile, unmissable, plan-making that sounds ambitious and exciting enough to attract the crowds. Then demystify the process. Draw the plan together.
As ever, it is all about the plan. Big or little. We need more, not less.