The Planning Bill is dead — long live the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill!
By Warren Lever
Our Urban Designer, Warren Lever, looks at the planning part of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill and what it might deliver for people’s long-term quality of life.
This week saw the repackaging of planning reforms into a broader Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill framed around local growth, empowering regeneration and giving communities greater involvement in local development. In the main, the Bill continues with the Building Better, Building Beautiful agenda, with an aim to pacify previous resistance through the promise of greater local involvement, an infrastructure levy and other measures like street votes. But how does it stack up?
Community involvement is key
The focus on greater accountability through community involvement is a positive step, but measures such as Street Votes are unlikely to deliver the levels of new housing — and in particular affordable housing — required. A number of authorities already have policies allowing density increases along certain streets/roads, but we have yet to see these proposals work in a unified, consistent or large-scale way. Might these proposals even create more local tensions and disagreement rather than the elusive 3/4 storey, beautifully designed rows of townhouses that some envisage?
What this Bill now needs to set out is a much broader and embedded approach to community engagement and involvement in levelling up, planning and regeneration. The proposals for area-wide coding and simplification of the local plan process are cautiously welcomed and most of us can see how these measures could work if resourced, planned and funded correctly. However, the Bill has a series of measures which run counter to this aim, such as the lack of a right to affect documents such as the spatial development strategy and supplementary plan. The centralisation of development management policies could very easily have the counter effect of removing the communities’ key ability to affect local plans and visions for their area.
Who’s making the magic?
There’s a genuine sense of magic in working with communities in shaping their cities, towns and neighbourhoods. If done well, comprehensively and with the right resources, the conversation can change from one of negativity to one of encouragement and positivity around new development and planning. Community engagement work needs to be ongoing rather than just project-specific bubbles of contact, and this requires skills and capacity, which currently many Local Authorities are struggling with. Without a firmer commitment to this capacity building it is a little unclear where the magic is coming from. The issue of how Local Plans will be simplified while at the same time being easier for communities to affect appears at odds with some of the centralised controls set out within the Bill and its schedules.
Design codes have to go beyond massing and aesthetics
The proposals for area-wide codes and their embedding within the local plan process are positive steps but again with the caveat of the time and people required to deliver these documents. Additionally, much coding to date has focused on the appearance of schemes through massing, height, building types and architectural appearance. With the urgent need to tackle both climate and biodiversity crises, design codes have to move beyond these purely visual elements. To improve people’s quality of life, codes need to think more deeply about enhancing biodiversity, meeting net zero and addressing health and wellbeing.
How does this create more social equity?
The Regeneration and Levelling Up White paper also promises greater devolution of powers, but the detail is yet to come regarding how this will be achieved in practical terms either through legislation, local authority organisation or the resources required to deliver it. As much of the UK falls behind London, and wealth, health and opportunity gaps continue to widen, this Bill has some huge challenges to address (1). At this stage, very little is set out as to how this will assist those who can’t afford a house or tackle the significant shortfall on the remaining target of 300,000 per year. In a bill promising pretty buildings, greater protection of green belts and potentially favouring councils with better resources these proposals currently fall a little short of delivering housing numbers, reducing spatial inequality or a unified approach to Levelling Up.
How and by whom will the Infrastructure Levy be used?
The move to replace CIL and 106 Agreements with an infrastructure levy suggests an increased responsibility on Local Planning Authorities to deliver infrastructure and affordable housing. This will mean already stretched and under-resourced local authorities possibly having to take on the not insignificant job of becoming infrastructure delivery bodies. We feel the Bill needs to strengthen the delivery of infrastructure beyond just roads and buildings, looking at green/blue infrastructure, active travel networks and increasing safety and inclusion within the built environment.
And with affordability such a key issue in UK housing, we are concerned that developers alone are not going to be able to shoulder the financial cost of creating the social housing that is needed. A concerted strategy for investment in social housing is needed to accommodate those most in need.
Resourcing remains a key — and unresolved — issue
It’s more in the category of what’s not mentioned or detailed where the worry is in these proposals. There is still very little on the resourcing of local government, skills shortages or the long held need for better regional spatial planning. The increase in planning fees are not ring-fenced and therefore the danger of using funds here to plug other council services remains. If this fundamental issue is not considered urgently the proposals could simply overload local authorities and create further delays and stagnation of the planning and regeneration process.
A broader approach is still required
The Bill is detail-lite on many critical issues such as tackling climate change, the housing crisis or the current health and wellbeing inequalities within many local communities. Levelling up should not be about different areas of the country bidding against each other or competing at the expense of neighbouring authorities. A much broader funding, spatial planning and regeneration approach is required that leaves no one area disadvantaged or left behind. If the country is to tackle issues such as poor housing quality, an ageing population, health disparities, community wellbeing and improved environmental outcomes the measures needed to address them should not be confined to random local authority boundary lines.
There is scope to address these issues as the Bill moves forward over the forthcoming year. Some of the key ingredients are there to build a more positive, accountable and proactive planning system. However, in its current form it needs to work much harder to truly deliver local accountability while at the same time tackling the big issues of climate, health, wellbeing, and spatial inequality for both existing and new communities.
Michael Gove has admitted earlier in the week how Levelling Up was ‘looking difficult’, which of course good planning and regeneration are. To do this stuff right it needs time, engagement, broad thinking, the right resources and the ability to make difficult decisions for the long term.