Meeting the planning challenges of the Housing White Paper
Sajid Javid’s much anticipated Housing White Paper was released last week. As the White Paper recognises, the UK housing problem requires a radical rethink of our approach to house building.
Identifying land to build houses on is one of the most pressing concerns. The UK needs to select new development sites, and bring them forward more quickly and in a way that is both sustainable and supports and involves local communities.
Whilst reading through the White Paper several phrases jump out of the page: 'planning for homes in the right place', ensuring 'difficult decisions are not ducked, maintaining strong protection' and 'examining all reasonable options'. Taken on their own, these phrases can be interpreted in a number of different ways. What unifies them is that they all reflect the fact that planning is complex and difficult, that not everyone agrees on what should be protected and what development 'in the right place' actually means in practice. But where does this leave planners who have the difficult task of identifying and testing those much needed housing sites?
This debate is, of course, not a new one. It is one that is argued up and down the country in planning departments every day (and one that unsurprisingly forms a large proportion of the discussions I have with my clients and their legal counsel). The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) released a position paper on this very issue at the end of last year: Where should we build new homes? RTPI Policy Statement on identifying new housing development opportunities.
There is a debate to be had on issues such as the green belt, the potential of brownfield land and the building of new communities to solve the crisis. I would agree wholeheartedly with the RTPI that the country as a whole needs to talk about the role of green belt and recognise that it is a role that may need to evolve if we are to meet the housing needs of the UK.
At the same time, and as recognised in the White Paper, there is clearly the need to look at how house building can be both sped up and made more sustainable. One tool that has been used to varying success by local authorities to help select development sites is a Sustainability Appraisal (SA). SAs have been somewhat vilified in recent years with the Local Plans Expert Group stating that it provided “little genuine assistance”.
Although most practitioners would agree that SAs can be overly complex (mainly because of the fear of legal challenge), used in the right way SAs can assist with many of the challenges that are set out in the White Paper. There have been some suggestions put forward by leading SA practitioners in the past on how the tool can and should be improved and these suggestions fit in well with some of the recommendations being put forward in the White Paper.
For example, is there is an opportunity for planners, developers and communities to work together to agree on what sustainability means for strategic sites in a locality, and what the potential impact of these strategic sites might be? An agreement on this could be reached in a modified version of the Statement of Common Ground with participative planning and assessment methods used to achieve it. This would also serve to reduce the time that is spent by consultants hired by different parties in planning disputes, picking apart SA reports and arguing at a late stage over details.
This is an interesting time for planning in the UK. The Housing White Paper and Brexit could provide the platform needed to push forward the next generation of SEA and SA; one that improves engagement, helps to define genuinely reasonable (and deliverable) alternatives and help deliver housing sites more quickly. Added to these changes, the new combined authorities and their potential powers to allocate strategic sites would be the perfect place to test this genuinely different and new approach.
The current focus of the National Planning Policy Framework and its definition of sustainable development is too narrow, and the current regulatory upheavals might provide an opportunity to come up with a more standardised approach to sustainable development and what SA reports should cover. This could especially reduce the problems at joint Local Plan Examinations where inspectors are being asked to compare sites where SAs have been carried out in using differing methodologies.
There is, of course, no easy answer to these issues. However, with a few changes to current procedures, Local Planning Authorities can better assess sites in a way that could ultimately speed up the process, helping deliver the objectives set out in the White Paper.
Emma Jones is a manager at Ramboll Environ.