Mark Jenkinson is the Member of Parliament for Workington.
Last month, the Government announced the launch of its consultation on ‘Planning For The Future’, gathering views from the public on how best to reform an outdated planning system, that for many years has failed in delivering desirable outcomes for local communities.
Prior to my election to Westminster I was a local councillor, sitting on the planning panel for the bulk of my tenure. My final six months was spent as the executive member with responsibility for planning.
Battle-hardened from regular sparring on the panel, I had many things I would like to have seen changed – which explains why I have been so excited by the interventions proposed in the White Paper.
I spent many hours debating local plan policies, settlement limits, and developers’ wishes to reduce contributions to local infrastructure. I fought for the council to publish financial viability assessments, yet had to go into private session if I wanted to pull up a developer for putting protection of their 25 per cent profit margin above providing school places or a road crossing.
Plan-making is currently extremely slow. The first part of our local plan, setting out the principles of development, was adopted in 2014. But we wasted more time than was reasonable debating ‘settlement limits’ from 1999, our hands being tied until the adoption of Part 2. That wasn’t adopted until this year – and still I had to listen to councillors trying to defer or derail it’s adoption.
I had a great officer team, but I often felt that fear dominated: the fear of losing the next appeal, or the fear that introducing a Community Infrastructure Levy would prohibit development, at least until neighbouring boroughs done the same.
This is why reading the consultation gets me excited about the possibilities for reform: to see proposals that talk of both growth and protection; that aim to deliver the housing we require in the places that localities deem fit; and to see talk of national and local design guides. After all, we’ve all looked at a new development and asked “who allowed them to build that, there?”
The proposed reforms seek to streamline the planning system, with councils publicly consulting and designating areas as growth, renewal or protected in a new local plan. And these local plans are expected to have cleared all hurdles within just 30 months.
Plans would be expected to set clear development rules rather than general policy. Meet those rules in a designated growth area and you clear the first hurdle of outline permission; go on to propose beautiful development in line with locally produced design guides, that have been developed with genuine community involvement rather than meaningless ‘consultation’, and the next stages will be much simpler than they are presently.
All the while we would better protect our green belt, our heritage assets and conservation areas, and areas of significant flood risk. We pay lip service to ‘placemaking’, but often we fail to deliver beautiful, functional, sustainable places.
Whenever I ask my constituents – and I have asked many thousands since December – if we should build more affordable housing, the answer is overwhelmingly yes. Yet the median house price in Workington is only 63 per cent of that for the whole of England and Wales, while the median salary is higher than that across the UK. The current system of assessing financial viability and negotiating section 106 agreements has not delivered the affordable housing that people need, in the areas that they want. It is a constant race to the bottom, while communities lack the infrastructure upgrades that should come alongside development.
These proposals seek to address that imbalance, with a new flat rate charge for infrastructure, and greater powers for local authorities to determine how that is spent. At the same time, we would look to close the loopholes whereby permitted development rights circumvent the need to provide for necessary infrastructure upgrades. And we are clear that the new system must provide greater infrastructure spending than currently, and should seek to deliver more affordable housing on-site.
We must be more ambitious in our aims for desirable local communities: every development should deliver net gain, not just no net harm. We should not be afraid to ask for beauty in our built environment. We must refocus on design, on quality, and on sustainability.
We’ve come a long way in recent years, and construction last year hit a 30-year high. But too much of what we build is low-quality, and often deemed ugly by local residents. Planning works best when it’s locally-led. A poor planning process leads to poor outcomes, and that has led to a collapse of confidence in local authorities to deliver large-scale development in a way that benefits communities.
These reforms give local people a greater and much more meaningful say in their locality, while making it easier to access and understand planning proposals and harnessing digital technology to create a more transparent planning system. They seek to increase the supply of beautiful, quality affordable homes in the places that people need and want them. They will deliver the infrastructure that communities need, and support the renewal and regeneration of our towns and cities.
We must seize this opportunity to put people at the heart of planning with both hands, creating a system that works for all. If we are to be ambitious in our hopes for the future, we must be ambitious in the reforms that will deliver them.