Wrong answer to the wrong question

This blog is from Cabinet lead for Spatial Planning and City Design, Cllr Nicola Beech, regarding the Government’s consultation on the Planning White Paper ‘Planning for the Future’ and Bristol’s response.

‘Planning for the Future’ proposed to ‘radically’ reform the planning system. The Government spoke about the need to streamline and modernise it, which would speed up the delivery of homes and potentially solve the UK’s housing crisis.

Bristol City Council is welcoming of development and growth. Recently Bristol’s Mayor, Marvin Rees, was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) for making a significant contribution to the built environment by founding a city-owned housing company, Goram Homes, which will develop and build homes, and will re-invest profits into the development of social housing. Since 2016 we have built 7,000 homes, and by 2021 will have built 1,430 new affordable homes as part of the largest council house building scheme for over 35 years.

Bristol is achieving this ambitious programme of delivery with the planning system, not in spite of it. In pointing the finger of blame at England’s planning system for the slow delivery of housing; the government has got the wrong answer to the wrong question.

While some of the proposals in the Planning White Paper are not unwelcome, they will not solve the housing crisis or deliver the healthy, sustainable and mixed communities we want – and need – to see. The White Paper does not address the fundamental issues hindering development and housing delivery; namely investment in infrastructure, delivery of social homes; and enhancing the non-planning powers that local authorities need in order to drive good, inclusive development.

The White Paper advocates an approach that would ‘fast track’ planning for ‘beauty’. A narrow focus on beauty risks ignoring or limiting important considerations that are fundamental to good, inclusive growth, such as environmental standards, biodiversity and green infrastructure. Good planning focuses on the bigger picture of what makes a good place to live. While they are of course important, appearance and beauty should never trump sustainability, liveability, safety and community.

The proposals put forward in the White Paper to designate areas into ‘growth’, ‘renewal’ or ‘protection’ zones, with the presumption of development in ‘growth’ and ‘renewal’ areas, is a fundamental risk to local democracy, consultation and engagement.

As a growing city, Bristol would surely fall into the ‘growth’ and ‘renewal’ zones. We have worked hard to empower our communities and ensure local residents are fully involved in the development and growth of their areas. These proposals would undercut that and would be entirely the wrong approach. The planning system should retain and enhance community consultation and engagement and put residents at the heart of plans to grow, regenerate and re-shape their local areas, not ride roughshod over them.

The White Paper also makes the assumption that land use and form can be set entirely at the Local Plan preparation stage for the full 15 year period of a Local Plan. This is another misjudgement of how cities and communities evolve over time, which also fails to allow the necessary flexibility we need to adjust to changing circumstances.  15 years is a long time in the life of a city. The experience of just the last handful of years – the demands of the climate and ecological emergencies, evolution in technology and the fundamental changes brought by Covid-19 – exemplify the absolute necessity of locally-controlled flexibility and agility.

Blaming the planning system for the housing crisis fails to recognise that nine in 10 planning applications are approved by councils, and that more than a million homes given planning permission over the last decade have yet to be built. Stripping Local Authorities of a locally-led planning system with public participation, high standards of design, quality, affordability and sustainability at its heart is not the silver bullet to solving the housing crisis that the Government expects it to be.  

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