INDUSTRY COMMENT: JOANNE HALTON, HEAD OF PLANNING, SUMMARISES OUR CONSULTATION RESPONSE TO THE GOVERNMENT’S PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE WHITE PAPER
Following dialogue with interested clients from a variety of rural sectors, including small house builders and rural land and business owners, we have submitted our consultation response to the Government’s White Paper, Planning for the Future. The consultation seeks to gather the views of communities, landowners, developers and planning practitioners on the current planning system and the structural changes proposed by this Paper.
When asked what three things colleagues and clients would say to describe the current UK planning system, Rural Solutions’ collective responses were: ‘urban-focused’, ‘lacking creativity’ and ‘under resourced’.
MORE TO DO ON RURAL FOCUS
We are supportive of the Government’s aims to simplify the planning system but are disappointed by the lack of focus on rural planning. We are concerned that simplification in the manner proposed could result in overly restrictive and stifling planning controls in areas of open countryside. More clarity is needed on how this approach would work in rural areas and what it would mean for those classified as within ‘Protect’ areas.
NATIONAL AND LOCAL PLAN BALANCE
Whatever the mechanism, national planning policy should seek to ensure that the planning balancing exercise is retained as a means of local determination. The ability to undertake a balancing exercise and to weigh the social, economic and environmental benefits of a development against planning policy is an essential mechanism which currently exists and means that communities and Local Planning Authorities can still achieve well planned and beneficial developments that would be prevented by overly prescriptive or standardised planning policies. The loss of this approach would be a dire backward step.
ENSURING VITALITY IN RURAL AREAS
With the three-tiered system proposed, which seeks to introduce, Growth, Renewal and Protect areas, it seems likely that areas beyond settlements will be placed within Protect areas. This type of blanket approach could be detrimental to rural vitality. The application of the tiered approach needs to carefully consider the rural area and build in flexibility to allow rural communities to adapt to change and diversify more freely, for example, through a review of the definition of previously developed land in rural areas. There are extensive areas of developed land that are associated with underused or disused farmsteads with buildings of all ages and types which are surplus to requirements due to changes in farming practices, consideration should be given to defining sites like this as Renewal areas.
In Protect areas, prescriptive policies will still apply and as it stands nothing much is set to change in the way applications are determined. It is no surprise that a higher degree of protection is afforded to the countryside and designated areas, this is an important safeguard, but why should development in rural areas not benefit from some of the forward thinking measures proposed elsewhere, which look at ways to improve the speed of decision making and quality of development in Growth and Renewal areas.
People’s livelihoods depend on the quality and speed of planning decision making, particularly in rural areas where the diversification of the economy and the provision of housing is intrinsically linked to community vitality. Quite often rural innovation is stifled by the significant uncertainty and risk associated with the planning process. It is imperative that the planning reforms clearly demonstrate an expectation that the same focus on deliverability, quality and creativity should apply to Protect areas. It is unfair to rural communities not to give them the same experience of the planning system. The White Paper fails to clearly set this expectation, which is a missed opportunity.
POSITIVE PROGRESS FOR DESIGN
We welcome the Government’s focus on quality of design and the concept of ‘fast track for beauty ‘, which is a breath of fresh air. The planning system needs to recognise and reward those who go the extra mile and embrace design quality, innovation, sustainability and who bring forward development which will enhance the natural world. The new system needs to be careful that it does not stifle the expression of design through the use of overly prescriptive design guides, but we welcome the ambition to refocus in this way, as too often, the current planning system rewards mediocrity.
The idea of expanding and adapting the Neighbourhood Plan concept so that very small areas – such as individual streets – can set their own rules for the form of development which they are happy to see, is also potentially interesting. It would enable rural communities and collaborating landowners to better shape the future of their immediate environs. If this were to be taken forward as a concept, mechanisms would need to be put in place as with the preparation of Neighbourhood Plans to ensure that these mini plans aligned with the visions and objectives of Local Plans and that there is a well-evidenced social, economic or environmental rationale to support the Plan in order to prevent the rise of Nimbyism.
We also welcome the fact that the new system seeks to drag the planning system in to the 21st Century and make better use of digital technologies. It is hoped that this will enable young people to better engage and become more interested in the planning process. However, the Government will need to think carefully about the disparities in the mobile and broadband coverage that still exist between urban and rural areas. This needs addressing urgently, if simple and fair public engagement is to be enabled.
We await with interest the published response to the White Paper.