The government recently set out its changes to the town planning system in England and Wales in proposals trailed as the most radical intervention since the modern planning system came into being in 1947. But how will they impact housebuilders?

Peter Truscott CEO of Crest Nicholson

Peter Truscott

It is important for us as a housebuilder to consider whether these plans will help achieve the government’s ambitions for more housing delivery at faster pace, greater community engagement, great design and better quality.

A more predictable and responsive planning system will be crucial to unlock the potential of off-site manufacture. A good starting point would be to ask whether such ambitious planning reform was necessary or if the existing system could have been made to work harder.

The proposals outline some very positive changes of direction, including the standard method of assessing housing need, zonal proposals, changes to the environmental impact assessment process and statutory timeframes for local plans. Also, with caveats, design codes and the infrastructure levy may improve on current arrangements, especially by eliminating the torturous Section 106 agreements.

While a fresh approach can have greater impact, it comes with greater risks. My concern is the complexity. I understand the ambition to coordinate multiple layers of housing delivery regulation through the town planning system, but experience tells me this slows everything down. The proposals appear to be trying to satisfy everyone, which is very hard to achieve.

There may be no silver bullet. For example, there is a misconception that it is hard to get residents to support housing schemes in their area because of perceived poor design. As the Localism Act and New Homes Bonus in 2011 proved, giving an incentive for new homes doesn’t always transform opinions. Most people like things as they are. They understand that new housing is needed – but not on the field next to them.

This complexity manifests itself in the new arrangements by trying to achieve faster and more predictable planning outcomes while layering in great design that reflects local preferences, more effective engagement, infrastructure delivery, land value capture and more diversity of housing and also managing the widening environmental agenda.

All the above is important, but it is unclear whether it is best delivered through the town planning system. The New Planning Policy Framework was a good example of how something can be made to work. It rapidly delivered more land and while not perfect, enhancing it with the proposals for standardised assessments and fixed local plan timeframes could have been a basis to move forward.

A more rigid infrastructure levy could eliminate much frustration about Section 106 agreements. Similarly, the zonal proposals and design codes could take some of the politics out of the detail once the principle has been decided on.

All this will only work if it produces a fast track to getting on site, with the option of a more protracted route for exceptions that are less viable and need a more nuanced approach. I predict we will end up compromising on a system marginally better than today’s, but with a good deal of pain over the next few years getting there. In other words, a missed opportunity.

Crest Nicholson will always find a way to navigate what is in front of us, but it is more difficult for smaller, less resourced enterprises. So my plea to the government is ‘keep it simple’ and sometimes ‘less is more’.

Peter Truscott is chief executive of Crest Nicholson

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