Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets

Much of the ‘public debate’ about this month’s Housing White Paper has focused on the change (or, depending on your point of view, lack of change) to green belt policy. This is an important subject. But, in truth it is a little hard to tell how impactful the government’s key proposal will be. Forcing all councils to use similar housing needs methodologies might be a profound step in stopping anti-housing councils hiding behind artificially low ‘assessments.’ Or it might add up to nothing at all – an ineffectual centralising thrust which will be easily parried by localist obfuscation and befuddlement. Similarly, obliging developers to make use of planning permissions more quickly may bring forward some sites more quickly and reduce land speculation. It may just stop other sites getting permission in the first place. As nearly always, Beelzebub is hiding in the detail and success or failure will be a consequence of execution not intent.

In truth, the reforms are less radical than some hoped for and more radical than others feared, a classic example of the governing philosophy of British Toryism, a compromise between what some politicians think should be done and others believe can be done. And (though this point of view is currently unfashionable) in a democracy there is nothing ignoble about such a balance.

However, ‘below the line’ there were some axiomatically important announcements that, in time, could just help start to change our planning system for the better and very fundamentally indeed. They have been discussed in the mainstream media not at all and in the specialist media barely and, largely, uncomprehendingly. To grasp their importance, you need to know two, little understood things about British planning.

The first is that British planning is not a twentieth century creation. It did not, as most planners assume, ‘start’ in 1947 with the Attlee Government’s Town and Country Planning Act. All that (admittedly seminal) Act did was ‘turn back the clock’ from what might be termed an enlightenment system (which regulated primarily what you built) to an early-modern one (which regulated your right to build it). As is not now realised, late sixteenth and early seventeenth century London had what we would now term a greenbelt. Homes built beyond certain fixed limits could be pulled down and their developers imprisoned. It was the replacement of the numerous Elizabeth and early Stuart proclamations and legislation preventing the expansion of London with a series of Building and then Metropolitan Building Acts which permitted the explosion of Georgian and Victorian London. These regulated not the landowner’s rights to build but, sometimes very strictly, what types of building they could build and the spatial relationship between the building and the surrounding city. Looked at through this ‘long view’ our planning system for the last seventy years is very odd indeed. At any rate it is different from the one under which we built homes for two hundred and fifty years.

The second fact is that the modern British planning system is not just odd in historic terms. It is odd in international comparative terms as well. It is (unashamedly and proudly) 1940s socialist and all-encompassing in its intent. But, it has been very common law and unpredictable in its implementation. Seventy years of the British legal system with it multitude of applications, appeals, precedents and judgements has produced a system that combines a view on nearly everything and utter certainty on nearly nothing. Many regard this as a good thing. It is certainly very English and very ‘flexible’ (a word I hear used with pride in many planning or design seminars.) However, it also means that what can be built on a plot of land (density, design, use) is far more open to debate and judgement than in many other countries. Most foreign planning systems are less ambitious in their scope but more rule-based with greater certainty about what can and cannot be delivered. They start with the position that you have the right to build on your land (which is, for example, guaranteed in the German constitution) but you just have to do so in certain, on the whole quite predictable, ways. This is often (and increasingly in places like the US) set out visually so that there is no room for ambiguity. Our system starts from the opposite position. Other than a few permitted developments, you have no right to develop until the government grants it to you. However, what you can build is the subject of potentially infinite debate and much (and expensive) detailed pre-approval demonstration of what you plan to do.

This matters because it increases planning risk. The problem is not planning per se. It is planning risk. It is not even complexity. It is unpredictability. How much you can pay for land is uncertain. What you can build on it is uncertain. In many cases, whether you can build is uncertain. What you need to spend to find out and ‘win’ planning permission (a telling use of words) is a major cost and not proportionally less for smaller and infill sites. All this creates highly non-trivial barriers to entry to development far greater than many landowners or developers face in other countries or faced in this country until seventy years ago. Nearly all societies have some sort of planning legislation or regulation. London has since at least the twelfth century. What person A does on the land he owns next to person B can very materially impact person B. Managing this is a legitimate role for the state. At any rate, as a statement of fact, it is a role that most states find themselves undertaking. The trick is to do it in a way that does not choke off supply or popular support for new housing. This the British approach has failed to do other than by propping up supply with more state-building than most other countries find necessary.

It gets worse. Many of the rules that we do have (particularly in London where national requirements are thickly and foolishly gold-plated) aren’t very good and make it harder to deliver the type of finely grained, high density traditional and walkable town that many people love – and will pay extra for. As the president-elect of RIBA put it; ‘it’s actually quite hard to design streets which are streets in the sense that citizens will recognise.’ Polling and pricing data also consistently shows that too many modern developments, once over their new-build ‘boost’, do not achieve the same levels of desirability or resident satisfaction as their historic predecessors. It is surely beyond ridiculous that two thirds of respondents say they would not even consider buying a newly-built home.

What we need to do is pull all these strands together and grow a system that is better at delivering certainty of what can be developed and far better links what we build to the type of homes and neighbourhood that, provably, more people prefer and will pay for. Until we evolve the question from ‘how do we build new homes’ to ‘how do we make new homes more popular’ and do so with confidence it will continue to be hard to build sufficient homes. Fixing the supply of housing is not just, or even primarily, about the green belt.

Fundamental change of the planning system and housing market can’t be done with a ‘big bang’ or the system would fall over and house building collapse further. This is in no one’s interests. As in every market, the current big players know and understand the current system. Throwing it all up in the air would just stop them delivering. And, for the moment, we need them. The new system needs to grow within the old.

That is why most of the Housing White Paper is about a multitude of reforms to ‘force more homes through the current pipe.’ Quite right too. But, in time, we need to build a new, wider, pipe – and do so with popular consent. In this way the planning system and sub-functional housing market can evolve to one that is better able to help residents and communities confidently and visually express what they like and what they will support. Then in turn it can provide greater clarity to developers about what is and is not acceptable in local neighbourhoods. We also need to change the process from one where compliance with planning requirements needs to be demonstrated in detail prior to permission (which costs money and acts as a barrier to entry) to one where compliance to simpler but clearer rules is assumed but mendacious non-compliance is financially or legally prohibitive.

Here, then, are a few observations about the White Paper that you may not have read elsewhere but which, we in Create Streets believe, are more important than many that you will have read.

Firstly, the good news is that this month’s Housing White Paper starts the process of fundamental reform with a range of practical and incremental steps which permit communities more clearly to express and explain what they like and will support. (As a declaration of interest, I should add that many of these proposals appear to reflect and certainly cite the research, community work, publications and policy suggestions of the organisation which I lead – Create Streets.) If sensibly continued in years to come, this could start an axiomatic shift towards a planning system which is more predictable and better linked to what people prefer and will support. The White Paper is quite clear about its intent to give ‘communities a stronger voice in the design of new housing to drive up the quality and character of new development, building on the success of neighbourhood planning.’ But it also follows through with practical suggestions for how visual tools (often known in the industry as design codes) and local consultation on form should be better stressed within the National Planning Policy Framework. It proposes to ‘encourage greater use of Local Development Orders and area-wide design codes’. We are delighted about this. As our community work and research has shown, people respond positively when they are genuinely engaged with and when visual tools that give a comprehensible sense of what new development will look and feel like is used, rather than (often misleading) industry jargon.

Similarly, we were also delighted with the proposals to ‘expect that local and neighbourhood plans … should set out clear design expectations following consultation with local communities. This will provide greater certainty for applicants about the sort of design which is likely to be acceptable – using visual tools such as design codes that respond to local character and provide a clear basis for making decisions on development proposals. …. To really feel involved in the process, we need to help local people to describe what good design and local character looks like in their view. The longer term ambition is that the Government will support the development of digital platforms on design, to create pattern-books or 3D models that can be implemented through the planning process and used to consult local people on potential designs for their area.’ This is very sensible and potentially very important. We suggested something very similar in the 2015 Direct Planning (Pilot) Bill of 2015 promulgated by Lord Lexden which we helped draft. It aligns with emerging research on how best to build public support for development – and deliver more valuable development. Having clearer popular rules, including one that can be visually expressed for utter certainty and clarity is a key step. Sadly, some very senior industry figures (including some of those supposedly supporting neighbourhood planning) are privately scathing about such an approach. ‘They prevent design innovation, people just want homes that look the same’ one senior manager in an important publicly-funded organisation complained to me last year. Time to smell the caffeine.

Secondly, we welcome the encouragement in the White Paper to Neighbourhood Plans to be far bolder. In our work we have found, frustratingly frequently, that communities do not always realise the potential of Neighbourhood Planning to set where new development should go and what it should look like. We are therefore pleased to see the proposals to change the NPPF to ‘highlight the opportunities that neighbourhood plans present for identifying and allocating sites that are suitable for housing, drawing on the knowledge of local communities’. Neighbourhood Plans are, so far, leading to more support for new housing. This can further boost their benign impact.

Thirdly, the way in which the government focuses on the use of public sector land is correct. The Government has recognised that (in the current situation) this can’t just be a model of sale for the highest price up front but needs to involve public / private sector working together. For nearly three years we have been urging the Government to permit public bodies more readily not to have to apply ‘best value’ rules and giving them more flexibility to assemble land and sell more readily at use value. Public sector land is a key part of the puzzle for building and one on which the land value bullet can, in part, be dodged. In this context, the focus on estate regeneration is correctly balanced with a proposal to ‘amend national policy to encourage local planning authorities to consider the social and economic benefits of estate regeneration, and use their planning powers to help deliver this to a high standard.’ It is right to stress that estate regeneration must be done well and with local consent. Some recent examples have not been a success, and these have understandably been the highest profile cases. However, done properly, with genuine resident support and input, estate regeneration provides more homes and a better place to live.

The White paper is absolutely right to recognise that high-density housing can be popular and attractive. ‘When people picture high-density housing, they tend to think of unattractive tower blocks, but some of the most desirable places to live in the capital are in areas of higher density mansion blocks, mews houses and terraced streets.’ Spatially, and environmentally, this is the way to meet our housing need in a form that is viable, popular, sustainable, walkable and beautiful.

Finally, the White Paper is right to realise that certain standards can have unintended negative consequences. The proposed NPPF amendments include that plans and individual development proposals should ‘ensure that the density and form of development reflect the character, accessibility and infrastructure capacity of an area, and the nature of local housing needs; and take a flexible approach in adopting and applying policy and guidance that could inhibit these objectives … for example, avoiding a rigid application of open space standards if there is adequate provision in the wider area.’ We suspect however that the answer is more about getting the rules right but keeping them predictable than adding more uncertainty. More work required.

Ultimately, our vision for a society of acceptable housing supply, fairness and prosperity must be for a planning and housing market ten to fifteen years hence which is fundamentally far better at providing the sort of place where people want to live, will support and where they will thrive.

The White Paper has not tried to get there in one bound. Nor should it. The current development-control based system needs to keep spinning while a more predictable, more populist system grows in its place. But this White Paper is a potentially very important and welcome step in the right direction. Building far more homes and far more places of beauty with public support is a mission of existential importance to fairness and opportunity in modern Britain.