Planning for the future: the white paper one year on

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By Emma Atkins
6th August 2021

One year ago today, the government published its Planning for the Future white paper, a blueprint for the biggest shake-up of the planning system since the Second World War.

In the foreword, the Prime Minister vowed to ‘tear it down and start again’ and alarm bells sounded around the country. Many of us know the planning system isn’t perfect, but what the government was proposing to do was demolishing the whole house just to fix the roof.

CPRE, the countryside charity, has championed a planning system that works for people and nature since 1926, so naturally we rolled up our sleeves and got to work.

Not just about the algorithm

Famously, the so-called ‘mutant algorithm’, which would dictate where houses would be built around the country, gained the most attention in autumn 2020. Analysis from Lichfields consultancy found that the method would mean that areas in the south would be built on the most. It’s clear that governing by algorithm doesn’t work but the problems with the government’s planning proposals don’t end there, which is what we stressed in the Daily Mail.

Such a behemoth policy change was bound to get pushback from multiple directions, and CPRE worked hard to highlight the dangers to community voice, affordable housing and local green space.

Community voice

Many in the sector were concerned that the planning changes would take power out of the hands of communities and into the hands of developers. This was echoed by a poll in September 2020, which found that only 4% of councillors thought the proposals would make the planning system more democratic. More than 2,000 councillors then signed an open letter to the Secretary of State, organised by CPRE and Friends of the Earth, warning that the proposed changes to planning will undermine trust in the planning system.

'Only 4% of councillors thought the proposals would make the planning system more democratic.'

From local government to national government, policy-makers were making their voices heard. Alarmed by the potential electoral backlash, Conservative MPs held a parliamentary debate in October 2020 to oppose their government’s own plans.

The debate was a firestorm, with former Prime Minister Theresa May saying the proposals needed ‘a complete rethink’. Democracy in action!

Many were concerned the planning changes would take power out of the hands of communities | Abigail Oliver

Later down the line, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee echoed these concerns in a report in June 2021 and concluded that: ‘All individuals must still be able to comment and influence upon all individual planning proposals’. The government has been continuously pelted from all directions over the plans to scrap community voice from individual developments; ignoring local people will not get the homes we need in the right places.

Homes that everyone can afford

The government justified the white paper by saying not enough homes are being built under the current system – and it’s true that we need more homes, and especially more homes that people can genuinely afford. But the planning system is not the reason why these aren’t being built.

The Local Government Association found that over 1.1 million plots have been granted planning permission, but are yet to be built. This is because sites go up in value the longer developers hold onto them. Nine out of ten planning applications are granted permission, demonstrating that the planning process is not the problem; the spanner in the works comes later down the line.

'Key workers are often priced out of their communities.'

We are currently in a housing crisis of affordability. CPRE research found that key workers are often priced out of their communities, and it’ll take more than 100 years to supply people on the social housing register with homes to live in at the rate we’re building social housing at now.

This year, we published research with English Rural about rural homelessness and a joint letter with Shelter about what the white paper will mean for affordable housing. Moreover, our brownfield analysis showed that the government could build 300,000 homes a year without touching green spaces, and was covered in the Daily Telegraph.

Access to local green space

The white paper proposes to allocate land in England as either ‘growth’ sites or ‘protected’ sites. In ‘growth’ sites, developers will receive outline planning permission (that is, permission for the general concept of the development, such as the type and size) if they adhere to the requirements in the local plan. In ‘protected’ sites, development will come forward under the present system.

However, CPRE has continually found that the present system is not doing enough to protect green spaces, and the white paper hasn’t guaranteed any further protections for these areas.

The present system is not doing enough to protect green spaces | Ruth Davey

In our State of the Green Belt report in February 2021, CPRE found that 257,944 homes are proposed for green belt land, nearly five times as many as in 2013. In April, our State of AONBs report found that houses built in AONBs increased by 135% since 2012/13, with 80% of applications getting planning permission. On average, only 16% of homes built in AONBs are considered affordable by the government’s definition.

And on top of all that was CPRE-commissioned research, covered in The Times in May 2021, which found greenfield sites will be needed to accommodate 193,724 homes in London, 106,852 homes in the southeast and 69,195 in the southwest over the next five years – if current proposals go ahead. Moreover, many brownfield sites in the north will remain unused, conflicting with the government’s levelling up agenda.

Our solutions

We were keen to put forward our own ideas and offer constructive and positive solutions to the planning proposals. CPRE is convening a coalition of over 30 planning, housing, environmental, heritage and transport organisations, and we published a joint Vision for Planning together in January 2021. This paper was months in the making and was covered in the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian.

'We were keen to put forward our own ideas and offer constructive and positive solutions to the planning proposals.'

Building on this work, CPRE published the Six tests for planning with 21 other organisations from the planning coalition in July 2021. The tests will be used to scrutinise the government’s response to the white paper consultation by scoring the government red, amber or green on six key areas, including local democracy, affordable housing and nature.

Concessions from government

In December 2020, the government recalibrated the ‘algorithm’ and instead introduced modelling that placed a 35% uplift of housing in urban areas. While we welcomed the changes, we were concerned that uplift will not actually benefit inner urban areas needing regeneration, but would place more pressure on Green Belts and AONBs.

CPRE was relieved when the government announced it was no longer proposing to restrict affordable housing provision on small-to-medium sites, which would have resulted in a loss of up to 6,000 affordable homes every year. Our response was covered in inews, and we’re still concerned the white paper will not deliver the housing we need.

'We're still concerned the white paper will not deliver the housing we need.'

There was a political earthquake in June 2021 whereby the Liberal Democrats overturned a 16,000 Conservative majority in the Chesham and Amersham by-election. The planning proposals were touted as one of the core motivators of the swing, and resulted in the Prime Minister insisting that there had been ‘misunderstandings’ about the planned changes. Softer language was used in a Westminster Hall debate in the following month, with the housing minister confirming that the government’s approach would be one of ‘reform’ rather than ‘tear down and start again’ as proclaimed initially by the prime minister.

An array of buildings of different types
We’ll continue campaigning ahead of the upcoming Planning Bill | Toa Heftiba / Unsplash

What’s next

After a year of hard work, collaboration and clear wins, there’s still much to do.

We are expecting the government to respond to the white paper consultation and bring forward the Planning Bill in late 2021, which will lay out its direction of travel. The government originally promised the response in spring 2021, and the delay is a testament to the pressure from all angles making the government refine its thinking.

We will continue to campaign in the meantime, and work with the CPRE network, planning coalition and government officials to try and develop the best version possible of the proposals.

'We hope that the stories we gather will highlight how important it is to listen to local people and that this makes planning work better for everyone.'

We want to gather stories from around the country and amplify voices and groups that are too often overlooked in the planning system. As the threats to local democracy and affordable housing are among the core concerns we have with the upcoming Planning Bill, connecting with organisations who are experienced in harnessing the voice of communities is key. We hope that the stories we gather will highlight how important it is to listen to local people and that this makes planning work better for everyone.

We couldn’t have done this without the CPRE network and supporters. Please consider donating to help us continue this work!

Benjamin Elliott / Unsplash

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The legacy of Ethel’s vision and determination lives on thanks to the continued efforts of the Friends of the Peak District, and she remains an inspiration to everyone within CPRE