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10 May 2023updated 12 Oct 2023 10:47am

What’s wrong with the English planning system?

Keir Starmer has said a Labour government would try to overhaul our internationally unusual set-up.

By Jonny Ball

In the wake of the Conservative Party’s disappointing local election results last week, a succession of backbench Tory MPs were on hand for BBC Radio Four’s The World at One to explain what had gone wrong.

“We’ve been hit with unrealistic housing targets in my constituency,” said Kelly Tolhurst, MP for Rochester and Stroud. “There’s uproar against that from the local community.” But next it was the turn of Charles Walker, MP for Broxbourne: “If the Conservatives don’t build homes for young people, and we go down that path, I suspect we won’t like what we find at the end of it.”

These contradictory positions reveal the root of the Conservative’s predicament. As the present Tory electorate ages, few younger voters are likely to make the time-honoured shift to conservatism if they’re struggling with rent, and have no hope of buying property and attaining aspirational, middle-class lifestyles. On the other hand, building more houses risks alienating the true blue voters of the home counties and the loyal shires, areas with a high concentration of nimbyish opposition to new developments.

A 2020 government white paper said that the UK’s growth potential was being “artificially constrained by a relic from the middle of the 20th century” – the “outdated and ineffective planning system”. In a similar vein, earlier this year, the Labour Party released its “mission” document on economic growth, promising wide-ranging planning reform. And last week, Keir Starmer said the party would have to “be bold when it comes to things like planning”.

But this apparent political consensus on the issue hasn’t made it easier to solve. Wide-ranging changes intended to help remove planning bottlenecks and set building targets for local authorities were shelved when Rishi Sunak entered No 10. Despite Tolhurst’s protestations after Tory council losses, it was her anti-development faction on the Tory backbenches that pushed for mandatory housing targets and streamlined planning rules to be dropped from the legislative agenda in the wake of a rebellion last year.

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Why does planning matter?

The UK doesn’t build enough houses. A combination of constrained supply, as well as demand boosted by years of cheap credit and Help to Buy subsidies, have created a housing bubble. Average prices are around nine times the level of average earnings. France, a country with a similar-sized population, builds around 380,000 houses a year – down from a pre-financial crisis peak of half a million. Meanwhile, the UK builds only around 200,000 a year.

It’s not just housing that isn’t getting built because of our byzantine planning system. Although it falls under a different category of UK regulation, planning is also acting as a drag on building essential energy and transport infrastructure.

The typical planning application for an onshore wind farm contains over 1,000 separate documents, with a 10,000-page environmental statement being just one of them. Projects like new transmission lines that are needed for the distribution of renewable electricity can attract tens of thousands of objections from local people and businesses, slowing projects down, adding costs, and even leading to them being shelved after years of work by the government, local authorities and developers. HS2 is the most expensive railway line per kilometre in history. Planning policy is at least partially to blame for its ballooning costs.

What’s wrong with the planning system?

“We have an unusually dysfunctional discretionary planning system,” says Anthony Breach, a senior analyst at the Centre for Cities think tank. It’s the subjective, uncertain, discretionary element of the process that acts as a key hurdle to building. Rather than having a rules-based presumption of approval, or approval-by-default so long as a proposal conforms to the regulations and set local plans, instead each application is judged individually, with vetoes at every level that invite opposition from nimby groups. Even if developments are perfectly in line with published local plans, they can still be blocked by campaigners and councillors.

The introduction of a National Planning Policy Framework in 2012 helped to consolidate 1,500 pages of national guidance into a simple 60-page rulebook. But local authorities also set their own rules through complex local planning codes, or “local plans”. These are often applied arbitrarily or with the concerns of local voters high in the minds of those elected to planning committees.

“Every decision is taken case by case,” Breach told Spotlight, “which means that you can propose something that complies with the local plan and it can still be rejected by the planning committee.”

Local plans are “like a letter to Santa”, says Breach. They’re 500-page wish-lists of “all the things that the local authority wants every application to broadly conform to”, covering city and town centres, residential areas, commercial high streets, suburban and rural districts in one very lengthy document. These documents are different in every local authority district; there are over three-hundred districts in England alone, and some of these have even consistently failed to publish a local plan document at all, leaving developers totally in the dark when it comes to what may or may not be approved.

What would an improved planning system look like?

In most countries, developers can be certain that if their proposals conform to the rules set out in a local plan and an over-arching national plan, their buildings will be approved. Instead of a discretionary process, as in the UK, planning permission must be granted if submissions follow local plans and building regulations.

The Labour leadership has been advocating such an approach as part of its promise to improve the UK’s sluggish growth trends while addressing acute shortages and price pressures in the housing market. Similarly, a fledgling movement of “yimbyism” aims to boost housing supply and make housing more affordable.

But the free-market right has also been pushing for reform. The disjointed and complex planning system is seen as an unnecessary regulatory burden on the private sector. Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng spent their short time in government trying to “streamline” planning as part of their dash for growth. “Classical liberal” think tanks like the Institute for Economic Affairs, meanwhile, have long argued that state-sanctioned drags on the ambitions of property developers should be removed.

But these efforts are opposed by conservationist organisations such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England, as well as myriad opposition groups formed to oppose specific developments in their areas.

Why are reforms so difficult to implement?

The government’s approach to planning and housebuilding today has been described as a “nimby’s charter” because it makes it easier for local groups to successfully oppose building plans than it is for developers to get projects approved.

Plans to reform the planning system, which included changing the discretionary, case-by-case process and imposing housebuilding targets on local authorities, were dropped after backbench Conservatives threatened a major rebellion at the end of last year. MPs in many Blue Wall rural and suburban constituencies in the south, under pressure from residents opposed to new developments, were worried about losing their slender majorities.

Their fears were accentuated by the Chesham and Amersham by-election in 2021. Local concerns over HS2 and new house building projects (sparked by the removal of local planning vetoes) played a major part in the Conservatives losing the seat, which was once considered safe. Last week’s local election results underlined this electoral and economic challenge.

When the planning reforms were dropped, Brian Berry, chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders, a trade body representing small and medium-sized developers, said that the planning system was “one of the biggest constraints on the ability of small housebuilders to build more homes.” The Home Builders Federation said the government’s U-turn on planning reform could mean housebuilding falling to record lows, which could threaten 400,000 jobs in the industry.

There are few routes to Starmer entering Number 10 that do not travel through some of the seats that were at the root of the Conservative backbench rebellion over planning. There’s no reason why Labour MPs representing those areas, eyeing their small majorities, would be any more amenable to planning reform than their Tory predecessors. But with Labour’s parliamentary support often concentrated in towns and cities, the party is far less exposed to the concerns of home counties homeowners than the current government. It’s the Liberal Democrats who offer the bigger threat to the Conservatives in most of the anti-homebuilding constituencies.

[See also: Will anyone dare defy the Nimby Party?]

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