The government should stop messing with permitted development and focus on getting the fundamentals right, says Julia Park

Julia park

Increasingly, the default reaction to difficult problems that look unlikely to disappear is to set up a review or inquiry. We are currently experiencing a torrent of both, dominated most recently by the need to understand what led to catastrophic loss of life in Grenfell Tower. Here, the outcome of the Hackitt review has coincided with the public hearing stage of the Moore-Bick inquiry.

The recommendations of reviews and inquiries often end up being ignored, cherry-picked for easy wins or watered down. A large percentage is consigned to the too-difficult pile and only resurfaces when a similar problem occurs and someone remembers that things were supposed to change.

I don’t think this will be the case with Grenfell because it was, and is, too terrible to be kicked into the long grass. I hope it doesn’t happen to the Raynsford review of planning either, not least because much of the spirit and many of the recommendations in the interim report, published last month, are relevant to some of the regulatory, ideological and social failings that contributed to the Grenfell disaster.

As an experienced parliamentarian and former housing and planning minister under Tony Blair, Nick Raynsford will be only too aware that his ideas for reforming the planning system in England may fall on deaf ears, particularly as this Herculean task was commissioned by the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), not the government.

As BD reported last month, the interim report reaches the damning conclusion that “…the system is no longer working in the long-term public interest of communities or the country. It is weak, deregulated and less effective than at any time in the past three-quarters of a century.”

The headlines of the nine draft propositions that Raynsford and his talented panel have put forward (set out in full in the article) encapsulate what a good planning system would look like:

1. Planning in the public interest

2. Planning with a purpose

3. A powerful, people-centred planning system

4. A new covenant for community participation

5. A new commitment to meeting people’s basic needs

6. Simplified planning law

7. Alignment between the agencies of English planning

8. A fairer way to share land values

9. A new kind of creative and visionary planner

Each proposition addresses a fundamental question posed by Raynsford and his panel to themselves. Planning in the public interest, the first and most important, tackles one of the thorniest issues head on: “What is the justification for a spatial planning system in a market economy?” The full proposition is unflinching:

There is both an evidential and a principled justification for the regulation of land and the built environment. This justification is founded on the inability of market mechanisms alone to deliver a full range of public interest outcomes, and on the principled assumption that decisions with a lasting impact on people and places should be subject to democratic accountability that goes beyond the exercise of individual property rights.”

Just as unequivocal, the second proposition interrogates the purpose of a spatial planning system. Rejecting the flaky and inadequate definition of “sustainable development” in the NPPF, Raynsford reminds us that we already have the 2005 UK Sustainable Development Strategy which hinges on two core objectives: “Living within environmental limits” and “Ensuring a strong, healthy and just society”. The three other objectives, “Achieving a sustainable economy”, “Using sound science responsibly” and “Promoting good governance” support the delivery of the two over-arching goals. He’s right; this is great stuff – why reinvent the wheel if you have nothing better to offer?

Our professional skills are not the only things that matter - other people live with the legacy we leave

People, democracy and fairness are central tenets. The thinly disguised rebuke in the first proposition is aimed at “the market” but democracy is fascinating territory for architects as well as developers. We wouldn’t train for seven years unless we believed that, through design, we add something that few untrained people would be able to contribute. But Raynsford’s words, developed and reinforced in the fourth proposition on community participation, remind us that our professional skills are not the only things that matter and that other people live with the legacy we leave. The omission of any reference to the extent to which local councillors secure good, democratic outcomes through informed and impartial representation of their constituents should, perhaps, be addressed in the final report, due this autumn.

I also found myself wondering whether this is the right place to assert basic human rights such as “a right to a home”. But, by doing so, the fifth proposition is effectively reinforcing the rejection of self-interest and nimbyism. No qualms about a legal obligation to “plan for the needs of future generations” however.

Other recommendations focus on improving “the system” – the legal and administrative frameworks that have become convoluted and complex through neglect and the growing tendency to tamper with policy and law on the hoof to suit an immediate priority rather than looking at it in the round. Raynsford is extremely concerned by what he describes as the “constant state of flux over the last 15 years” and lack of coordination between agencies; not least the eight government departments and bodies that have a stake in planning. While partial devolution may be good for the areas that have an elected mayor, it has only added to the overall complexity.

In terms of specific criticisms, the report singles out prior approval as a damaging and retrograde step; particularly the permanent treatment of office-to-residential conversions as permitted development. If the audience of 2-300 at the recent NLA conference on density and small sites is anything to go by, this view is widely shared. When delegates were asked whether they felt this form of PD was a good thing, not a single hand went up. They are right: what is the point of a national planning system if the government itself keeps inventing ways to circumvent it? It’s not as though they weren’t warned to expect substandard outcomes. The introduction of planning in principle (PiP) is the latest in a series of misguided attempts to remove barriers that will, instead, make things more complicated. It’s what outline permission should be.

Nick Raynsford’s determination to pursue the vexed question of sharing land value (crucial to solving the affordability crisis) is laudable, and the final proposition, “A new kind of creative and visionary planner”, made me realise just how jaded I have allowed my view of planning to become. The short history of planning since 1947 is a stark reminder of what’s been lost, despite the heroic efforts of some of today’s best planners.

This interim report has come too late to be reflected in the initial re-draft of the NPPF, but in time to influence the final version. It would, of course, take years to implement the proposals in practice, but setting out a positive vision for the future and ensuring that planning authorities are properly resourced would go a long way to restoring faith in a system that is uniquely placed to transform places and lives.