Councils should be handed power to control permitted development rights in their areas, former housing minister Nick Raynsford has urged in a report that delivers a stark appraisal of the current planning system
The Raynsford Review of Planning in England, commissioned by campaigning charity the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), urged ministers to rethink the current system by which certain building works can be carried out without planning permission.
The government last month launched a consultation on plans to expand permitted development rights to allow some rooftop additions to commercial and residential properties as well as to allow offices to be demolished and replaced with homes.
But the final Raynsford Review, published yesterday (20 November), called on ministers to act urgently to ‘end the commitment to extend permitted development to the demolition and rebuilding of office and commercial buildings’ and to ’return powers over permitted development to local government’.
The report – put together by a team including chair of the Peabody housing association Bob Kerslake and former chief planning inspector Chris Shepley – gathered evidence from 200 sources such as the RIBA and the British Property Federation.
‘If there is one striking conclusion to be drawn, it is that the current planning system in England does not work effectively in the long-term public interest of communities or the nation,’ said the report.
‘Planning in England is less effective than at any time in the post-war era, with an underfunded and deeply demoralised public planning service, conflicting policy objectives and significant deregulation.’
Planning in England is less effective than at any time in the post-war era
The report warned that permitted development rights that removed the need for consideration of issues such as space standards or school places often led to ‘adverse implications for people’s health and wellbeing’.
It added that it was ‘possible to verify a host of poor-quality design outcomes that result from permitted development’.
One architect practice told the review team: ‘This is a contractor, not designer, led process in which quality control has been side-lined so schemes can be value engineered to the lowest common denominator. The result is shockingly poor design and dubious build quality.’
Interim chief executive of the TCPA Hugh Ellis said the UK could choose between building the ‘slums of the future’ or ‘creating places that enhance lives’.
‘Permitted development is toxic and leads to a type of inequality not seen in the Britain for over a century,’ he said.
British Property Federation chief executive Melanie Leech insisted there was a place in the current planning system for permitted conversion of commercial buildings into homes.
’Breathing life back into underused or vacant office buildings not only supports much-needed housing supply in the UK but it is vital to our town and cities’ economic and social wellbeing,’ she said.
’Any trip through our suburbs soon exposes redundant office space that, with the best will in the world, is never going to be brought back into commercial use, and for such situations this policy is helpful. Design quality must, however, be at the heart of any development or regeneration project, in the way that it supports people’s lives, business performance and the environment.’
Leech added that the need for permitted development rights could be reconsidered if all local authorities had up-to-date local plans and employment use strategies.
Housing minister Kit Malthouse MP said: ’I welcome Mr Raynsford’s review into the planning system and share his view that we need a planning system that responds to the needs of communities.
’That’s why we have already begun an ambitious package of reform to the system, giving local areas the tools they need to build more, better, faster homes while protecting our precious environment.’
Seven immediate actions urged by the Raynsford Review
- End the commitment to extend permitted development (PD) to the demolition and rebuilding of office and commercial buildings, and return powers over permitted development to local government
- Ensure that the forthcoming Environment Bill and the principles it contains are applied to the planning system
- Provide a new remit for the National Infrastructure Commission to prepare a national planning framework for England
- Publish comprehensive new planning guidance on how genuine public participation can be promoted in all parts of the planning process
- Organisations working in the planning and built environment sector should draw up a cross-sector compact on the values and direction of future reform of the English planning system
- The government should set out in policy clear direction on the returns that landowners can expect when calculating viability assessments
- The professional bodies that collectively have a hand in planning and the built environment should urgently review their ethical codes to embed the principle of ‘do no harm’
Comment: Félicie Krikler, director at Assael Architecture
Last week saw the publication of the much-anticipated Raynsford Review of planning in England, futuristically titled ‘Planning 2020’. The review’s task force, led by Nick Raynsford, diagnosed the system’s woes aptly, suggesting that there is ’widespread disenchantment’ in the built environment with the planning system in its current state. And that this adversity has undermined the industry’s belief that planning can “deliver what the country needs and deserves.
Overcoming this discontent with planning is no small feat, and the final report sets its sights high, with the recommendations seeking to increase transparency and accountability within the planning process, bring communities to the heart of planning procedures, give local authorities greater control over projects and unite the entire industry around a single legal duty: that ’the purpose of the planning system is to positively promote the long-term sustainable development of the nation and the health, safety and wellbeing of individuals’.
The recommendations laid out in the report correctly diagnose the shortfalls of the current system and, if enshrined into legislation, would take decisive steps towards creating a more open, democratic and community-centric planning process in England. Yet, the recommendations of the review fail to mention the tools that are already available within the industry to improve planning and development.
Recommendation 2, for instance, states the need to forge a ’wider cross-sector dialogue about the value of democratic planning’. While collaboration and the creation of a cross-industry dialogue is vital, the entire sector should use metrics that are already being deployed on projects, namely social value.
The Social Value Act was introduced in 2013 to help widen the debate around value and project outcomes, raise public procurement standards, alter investor expectations and show businesses the intrinsic value-add created by making a positive contribution through their work. Since its introduction, social value has been increasing in prevalence throughout the built environment and within other sectors as public spending cuts have seen libraries, nurseries and community centres retreat from public life.
While social value has traditionally been measured through the job creation and skills and training initiatives of specific projects, the net is now widening to consider the full lifecycle of buildings and the public realm, as well as utilising digital data to measure how people engage with spaces and buildings.
The Raynsford Review seems to elude to this at times, but fails to nail it down. The true value of democratic planning is in the social benefits of its processes and outcomes – its social value. This can range from giving communities agency within the planning process, to enshrining within planning laws design principles that are conducive to a healthy mental wellbeing. Planning and design processes that ’promote the long-term sustainable development of the nation and the health, safety and wellbeing of individuals’ would fall under the umbrella of social value.
While quantifying social value is a difficult task that is being explored by a lot of organisations, there are noticeable benefits from prioritising it within projects. Through my work at Assael, I have witnessed that regeneration projects that ensure community engagement from the first stages usually deliver schemes that are less divisive to existing residents, less likely to face opposition at the committee stage and ultimately promote a greater sense of pride and community in the area. A win-win situation for everyone.
The final report of the Raynsford Review is right to recommend opening up the planning process to all and unifying the industry around the desired aims and outcomes of planning. But instead of starting the debate around value from scratch, we should simply sharpen the tools already available to us. Pursuing social value provides a great basis for a just and equitable transformation of the planning system in England, while providing social purpose to architects, local authorities and developers. In the words of Raynsford himself, to do anything less would be a dereliction of duty.