The Budget feels a very long time ago.
Necessity is now king, and the eyes and institutions of the government are firmly and rightly fixed on solving the current pandemic.
So it is easy to forget that only a few weeks ago the housing secretary was ‘Planning for the Future’ with his new paper on housing reform. While keeping our loved ones and communities safe and well is our collective priority, we will still need to plan for the future.
Robert Jenrick’s four-pronged programme reminds us that we are due a planning white paper, a building safety bill, a renters’ reform bill and a social housing white paper this year. We will have some important decisions to make.
The ambitions in Jenrick’s paper are sound – everyone would say that we need to build more high-quality, beautiful homes as quickly as possible. The government reasserted its commitments both to embedding the principles of beautiful building in the planning process and to accelerating the planning system. It also promised more money for local infrastructure, backing for the Oxford-Cambridge arc and another review of the mechanism for calculating housing requirement.
But at its heart it holds an inherently contradictory policy position: a commitment to localism and local determination but also intervention, which may not be as easily compatible as Jenrick wishes to believe. Policy implementation is of course easier when it is in the hands of well-run and well-funded local authorities in which there is political consensus. However, government also needs to be willing to enforce policy when development is not moving fast enough.
There is a continuing conflict in the approach to development planning and what to do when the ‘duty to co-operate’ does not result in a sufficient response to the distribution of need.
The government is still keen to show itself to be in favour of development led by local plans, but it also needs to intervene and perhaps guide local authorities that, for one reason or another, struggle. Policy measures such as local development orders and zonal planning are only as good as their implementation.
This conflict is also present between the government’s ambitions to encourage local determination and beautiful building, but also to extend permitted development rights. Centralisation and localism both have their plus points in the planning system, but the government must strike the right balance to move forward efficiently. The planning system regulates the use and development of land in the public interest. But how is that defined, by whom and how does it translate into delivery?
The white paper offers the government an opportunity at a time when, as a nation, we have come together for the collective good – it should grasp it with both hands.
Iain Painting is senior partner at Barton Willmore